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Recently I took a look at Campbell Scott's version of William Shakespeare's Hamlet which attempted to update the story in a way that would make it come alive for younger audiences. By moving the material into the early twentieth century Scott crafted some thematic problems without really bringing the story into the present and, while it's a fine production overall, it doesn't really add anything new. Screenwriter Andrew Davies and director Geoffrey Sax's Othello, produced for Masterpiece Theater, takes a much more radical approach to the same idea. They move the setting up to the present day and dump the Shakespeare dialog. These are changes that will definitely make the film more accessible to modern audiences but they also bring up the question of whether or not Othello, with all the omissions and changes, is even still Shakespeare at all.
The plots of Shakespeare's plays - even his signature works like Othello - are not what make them so good. Sure, they're filled with double-crosses and familial intrigue, but so are Lifetime movies. Shakespeare cribbed many of the plotlines of his fictional plays from other popular works of the time. What makes his work so unique, however, is his wording. Each text contains endless variations on the English language, with lines that have double and triple meanings and that often grow richer within the context of the play's entire structure. Everyone knows that Hamlet says "To be or not to be," but it is only in taking in the entire breadth of Hamlet's story that his dilemma becomes real.
By removing the dialog and updating it to modern English the makers of Othello have crafted a non-Shakespeare Shakespeare. The temptation to do that is great and many have tried it, including another Othello update, the recent "O". There is nothing wrong with this method and by updating the story the filmmakers are able to make strong statements on race and love. But watching this Othello is not akin to watching Shakespeare.
Having said that, Othello is a fine film, with strong performances from Eamonn Walker, Christopher Eccleston, and Keeley Hawes and the triangular John Othello, Ben Jago (the treacherous Iago figure) and Dessie Othello (the tragic Desdemona). The script, by Andrew Davies (who also adapted Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, aleit more faithfully), is tight and effective, although at barely an hour and a half it is perhaps distilled a bit too much. When Othello becomes paranoid and jealous the transition is a bit too sudden to fit with such a strong character. Still, Walker works wonders with the material and makes his Othello a powerful, complex man.
The non-anamorphic widescreen video looks very good. Colors are rich and deep at times and cold and distant when they need to be. There is a touch of grain but nothing that degrades the image.
The stereo audio is fine. The mix is subtle but gets the job done.
Some production notes and filmographies make up the limited extras.
Othello may not capitalize on all of Shakespeare's strengths but it does showcase a great story and some fine performances. It's a worthwhile film that can appeal to a wide range of viewers, from fans of the bard to those who've never read his works at all.