O, the gun-toting, blood-spattered, modernised movie adaptation of Shakespeare's Othello, turns out to be soulless and cold.
Tim Blake Nelson’s controversial film O is a clever gun-toting, blood-spattered, modernised adaptation of Shakespeare’s Othello that has caused a storm here in America – but the problem is, it’s a bit too enchanted with its own cleverness.
The story follows Odin (the tempting Mekhi Phifer), black star of his school’s all-white basketball team, as he deals with the pressures of dating the dean’s daughter Desi (the earthy Julia Stiles) and competing with his rival Hugo (the vapid Josh Hartnett). Jealously, betrayal and madness ensue, as the script stays surprisingly close to Shakespeare’s original.
It is common to hear critics lambasting movies for straying wildly from their source material, but not so common to hear them slate films for remaining too faithful to the original. But that is precisely the problem with O.
O has been adapted with soulless precision. The characters’ names have been self-consciously updated to their ‘modern’ equivalents – so Iago becomes Hugo – while warfare becomes a basketball championship, and illicit marriage becomes the contemporary, hormonally charged version of what they used to call ‘going steady’.
The film constantly nudges its audience with cloying little reminders of its ingenuity – congratulating itself for the ‘relevance’ of its adopted conceit. ‘See how easily we can transform Shakespearean tragedy into teenage melodrama? Aren’t we smart?’
As a result, it fails to convince that it has any feeling for how teenagers really speak, interact and behave. The dialogue seems to have been fed through a slang computer, with characters greeting each other with ‘yo, dog’ and proclaiming, ‘I ain’t gonna play you like that’. Such linguistic confusion looks like a forced attempt to make a perfectly decent script conform to some stodgy producer’s idea of teenage speech patterns.
Then there is Odin’s descent into madness. In Shakespeare’s play, Othello’s crazed state and his mental preoccupations plunge him into using crude speech – but Odin’s crudity is represented by a slip into ghetto slang. What are they saying here? That it’s a sure sign that respectable, well-educated young black men have gone mad and depraved if they talk hip hop and act like America’s gangland thugs? Othello is not about race, so O is on dangerous territory with this particular plot twist.
One way O benefits from its ‘Classic Lit 101’ interpretation of Othello is in its depiction of the Iago character, Hugo. Josh Hartnett, so laughably one-dimensional in Pearl Harbor (1), is the perfect choice for Hugo – precisely because of his lack of acting ability. Iago embodies pure, unmotivated evil that may or may not represent the ‘dark’ side of Othello’s own personality – and Hartnett’s inability to convey any sense of inner life works here in turning Hugo into a handsome, malevolent force of irrational social cruelty.
But perhaps the most disappointing thing about O is that it’s so cold – and if there’s anything a production of Othello should never be, it’s cold. While watching it, I didn’t feel any of the heartrending uncertainty or trauma that even the most benign events drum up in one’s teen years.
‘Odin is a hawk’, says Hugo in voiceover, tying up the film’s metaphoric loose ends involving flight. Unfortunately, despite all the time it took for the film to be released, O fails to spread its wings and really take off.
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