I love Shakespeare, and I'm always interested in film adaptations of his plays. It's amazing to think of the variety of ways in which his work has been brought to the screen. Versions that stick closely to the original text can still vary enormously, as we see in Branagh's historically accurate Henry V and the modernistic, almost surreal Titus. Other films opt to keep the story and characters from the play while switching to modern dialogue in a modern (or relatively modern) setting, as we see in King of Texas, an adaptation of King Lear in the Old West. "O" falls into the latter camp, as it takes Shakespeare's tragedy Othello and moves it to a modern high school setting.
Othello in high school? That sounds radical; does it work? Yes.
It's a daring venture, but director Tim Blake Nelson's vision pays off beautifully. Othello, the daring warrior who is set apart by his dark Moorish skin, becomes Odin James, or simply "O" (Mekhi Phifer), who is the basketball star of his exclusive preparatory school... as well as the only black student. Desdemona becomes Desi (Julia Stiles), O's girlfriend, and Iago becomes Hugo (Josh Hartnett), O's secretly jealous friend. Without going into unnecessary detail, I'll just point out that the other key roles in Othello are likewise shifted onto roommates, girlfriends, and a few key adults (notably the coach, played by Martin Sheen). The characters are drawn and acted well, and the story always feels like it's developing naturally. That's even more impressive when you consider that "O" is actually highly faithful to the plot as well as the characters of Othello, despite the high school setting and the completely modern dialogue; while there is obviously material left out, all the essential characters, scenes, and plot twists are there.
One testament to how well the setting works is that it's possible to watch the film and be drawn into its story while completely forgetting that it's a retelling of Othello; the play's themes of unbalanced emotion, obsession, need, and jealousy dovetail perfectly onto the situation as presented in "O." Of course, we have to thank Shakespeare for that as well, with his gift for seeing into the inner core of human emotions and telling stories that feel true even today.
Like the original Othello, "O" is about more than just jealousy: it's a story about a man who is uneasy with his own success because he knows instinctively that he teeters on a fine line between being adored and being reviled. The Moor's situation translates perfectly into modern-day racial relations as we see them in "O": as the only black student in the school, O remains aware at some level that despite his popularity, he is an outsider in a traditionally white world. In Othello, we may be able to tell ourselves that we would be more tolerant, more open-minded than the Venetians who resent a Moor marrying one of their own, but in "O" the situation is cast in terms that may carry more of a punch. The Dean resents O's relationship with his daughter Desi; would he feel that way if O were white? Even the positive relationships are gradually poisoned by suspicion: would the coach be as protective of O, so affectionate, if he weren't the star player whose skill can carry the team to victory (and the coach to a college position)?
One way that the film diverges slightly from the original play is its interpretation of Othello's main failing. While jealousy is still a crucial failing in the character of O, the film emphasizes O's insecurities as the driving force behind his downfall. At the beginning, we see him as a man on top of the world, with everything under control; as the film develops, we see beneath the surface confidence to a character who feels out of place, uncertain of his relationships, and fearful above all of being "played": manipulated, taken advantage of. It's a delicious irony that it's O's resentment of the very idea of being "played" by his closest friends that allows Hugo to play him for his own ends.
The beauty of the setting that's been chosen for "O" is that it doesn't take any extraordinary effort for Hugo (Iago) to start a chain of destruction. The actions and reactions of the various characters are completely believable, and each one sets events a little further in motion toward the inevitable, tragic end. As viewers, we know that things could be different, and we know that the truth of the matter could be found by any of the characters who really chose to set aside their preconceptions. But the characters are such that they are unable to deviate from the path that their passions and their insecurities have marked out for them; we feel for them, but we also see all too clearly how true the situation is to human nature.
When I first heard of Othello redone in a high school setting, I vaguely thought of the film as a kind of teen movie. But the film is nothing of the sort, showing us that just because a film has a largely teenaged cast, it's not automatically aimed at teen audiences (though that seems to be the case with too many Hollywood movies). In fact, "O" will probably have most resonance with adult viewers, who can appreciate both the tragic waste of the lives destroyed here, and the strength of the passions that drive the characters to what they do. In one of the interviews on the DVD, director Tim Nelson comments that he wanted "O" to be a film that crossed generational boundaries, and it does achieve that goal quite well.
"O" is presented in an attractive widescreen anamorphic transfer, at its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The image is clean and clear, free of noise and with minimal edge enhancement. Colors are well handled, looking bright and vibrant but always natural, and contrast in both light and dark scenes looks as it should. The print is in excellent condition, with no flaws showing up in the image.
The earlier 2-disc release of "O" forced the widescreen image to share disc space with a pan and scan version of the film, whereas the Signature Series release thankfully drops the chopped version to give full space to the transfer with the original aspect ratio. I don't have the other version at hand to compare, but it's reasonably likely that the additional space and resulting lower compression may have improved the transfer; certainly it looks outstanding here.
The soundtrack for "O" is in Dolby 5.1 only, and is very clear and clean, with no distortion at all even when the volume is quite high. However, the volume levels are actually the weak point of the soundtrack, as there is an excessive variation in volume across different scenes, from extremely quiet whispered conversations to full-blast music at a basketball game. If you have the volume set to hear the characters adequately in the former scene, the latter scene is literally uncomfortable to sit through, which in practice means a lot of fiddling with the volume controls on the remote.
There's actually not much use made of the surround channels in this 5.1 track, although a number of scenes really call out for it. The sound is mostly focused in the front, and there's not much that the 5.1 sound does in terms of surround effects that couldn't have been done with a 2.0 track. Overall, the soundtrack is reasonably good but could have been better.
A number of good special features are included here, starting with a feature-length audio commentary from director Tim Blake Nelson. Nelson also provides optional commentary for the four deleted scenes (which have a total running time of about nine minutes). Short interviews with Julia Stiles, Mekhi Phifer, Josh Hartnett, and Tim Blake Nelson add up to about six minutes; though brief, these interviews are fairly content-rich (there's no promotional-style "I play a character who..." fluff).
Another interesting feature is a basketball scenes analysis, in which Nelson and director of photography Russell Lee Fine provide commentary on the three main basketball sequences, discussing how the shots were filmed, the effects they were going for, and so on. Considering that the basketball scenes look great in the film, this is a nice extra. The running time here is about eight minutes in total.
Lastly, six trailers for other films are included. Menus are attractive and, more importantly, very easy to navigate through.
Compared to the earlier 2-disc release, the Signature Series release has all the same special features except the restored classic film Othello, which is available only on the 2-disc version.
This translation of Othello into a modern setting works beautifully to bring out some of the most interesting themes of the play, with the essential conflicts between, and within, the characters playing out in a natural and compelling manner. With its completely modern dialogue but its highly faithful rendition of plot and characters, "O" strikes a pleasing balance between old and new, and should draw in viewers who appreciate good drama as well as those who are fond of Shakespeare. The DVD offers an outstanding widescreen anamorphic transfer and a nice set of extras; those who already own the 2-disc version will have no reason to upgrade, but anyone who hasn't bought this DVD will find it a very worthwhile purchase.