Othello: A Look At Two Film Versions

Howard Schumann




Directed by Orson Welles (1952), 93 minutes 

Directed by Oliver Parker (1995), 123 minutes 

"So will I turn her (Desdemona's) virtue into pitch and out of her own goodness make the net that shall enmesh them all."- Iago 
William Shakespeare’s Othello has the smallest cast among the tragedies, yet it is one of his most powerful works. The play takes us from the populous city of Venice to the beaches of Cyprus, then to a limited private space, creating a cumulative effect that, with its theme of jealousy, betrayal, and revenge, has an effect of claustrophobic intensity. Othello, according to William R. Long, “is a play about the capacity to be hurt and the various ways that people respond to the loss occasioned by hurt”. Shakespeare's primary source was a one of a collection of a hundred stories in Giraldi Cinthio's Hecatommithi, published in 1565 in Italian and untranslated into English until 1855 (though it did receive a French translation in 1584), but it is no more than the skeleton of the plot. Shakespeare follows the gist of Cinthio’s narrative quite closely but places more emphasis on sex and race (Roderigo speaks of Othello as "the thick-lips"), and, of course, imbues his characters with much greater emotional depth.  

At the start, Venice’s chief military leader Othello, a Moor, shows a Christ-like calm and dignity, especially when accused by Brabantio of abusing his daughter Desdemona. The play shows the undermining of Othello’s calm and confidence by his conniving but brilliant ensign Iago who, resentful of Cassio’s promotion to Lieutenant and, perhaps jealous of Othello’s relationship with Desdemona, uses Roderigo in his plot to disgrace Cassio, and then persuade Othello that Desdemona is unfaithful. As in Titus Andronicus, a Moor ends up being guilty of barbarity (interestingly, Queen Elizabeth always referred to the swarthy Duke of Alencon, a potential suitor, as “her Moor”). While the comparison may be problematic to some, the story seems to mirror Edward de Vere’s cold and callous rejection of his presumably innocent and loving wife, Anne Cecil, after he too easily believed rumors of her infidelity, attributed to his friend Rowland Yorke.  

Orson Welles’ version of Othello, fully restored in 1992 and released on DVD, offers a visual spectacle that can be mesmerizing with its surreal feeling enhanced by distorted camera angles and cinematic tricks. However, for me its abbreviated length (93 minutes) emasculates the play, undermining Shakespeare’s intended complexity, ambiguity, and tragedy. Shot in Italy and Morocco over a period of four years, production was halted several times as Welles had to take on acting roles to desperately attempt to raise funds. In one scene, as costumes had not arrived, Welles moved the scene into a bathhouse and the cast was dressed only in towels and robes. 

Because of budget constraints, the sound was not recorded and had to be later dubbed in with Welles himself speaking the lines of multiple characters. However, much of the dialogue is incomprehensible and the glowing poetry of Shakespeare is almost lost. Although Welles plays Othello as a man of authority, he comes across ultimately as more of a pawn than a tragic hero. In the supporting cast, unlike the subtle Kenneth Branagh in the Parker version, Michael MacLiammor’s Iago has treachery written all over his face. To achieve success in the role, it seems that Iago must be two-faced: charming and believable on the surface, conniving and malevolent underneath, but MacLaimmor’s performance lacks the necessary dimensionality to achieve that impact.  

Other supporting players also do not fare well. Suzanne Cloutier is almost invisible as Desdemona and Michael Laurence and Robert Coote as Cassio and Roderigo lack any kind of personal power. Parker’s 1995 version, on the other hand, contains standout performances by Kenneth Branagh as Iago and Laurence Fishburne as Othello and I found it more emotionally involving and more satisfying than the Welles. Though it is also an abbreviated version with some scenes rearranged, Parker maintains all the important aspects of the play while bringing the dialog into a modern idiom. Fishburne fully captures the complexity of a military leader who, while powerful in the field of battle, is plagued by self-doubt and unable to deal with his inner emotions.  

Welles, however, does a better job in the opening act, giving Othello a dignified and almost regal bearing while Fishburne’s demeanor contains an element of arrogance rather than self-assured confidence. Branagh, the most experienced Shakespearean actor in the cast, does a brilliant job portraying Iago, the close “friend” almost Othello’s alter ego, the man who tortures him by dropping hints and withholding information, letting his mind race to its own conclusions. Moreover, Branagh infuses Iago with a hint of sexual motivation for his behavior, hinting that he wasn't “loved” enough by Othello or fully included as part of his team. 

Branagh seems more comfortable than the rest of the cast with the Shakespearean language and better at capturing Shakespeare’s rhythm and flow. The only quibble I had with the casting was Irene Jacob as Desdemona. While a truly talented and lovely actress, I found the combination of Shakespeare’s words and her French accent to be constantly jarring. Yet, Jacob plays Desdemona as aristocratic, high minded, and sensitive, with a passionate nature that she was perhaps naively too willing to spread in more than one direction. 

Though not perfect by any means, Parker’s version allows us to see clearly that Othello’s fatal flaw is not only jealousy, but rather a reluctance to question the information he is given, unwilling to change course because, like many of us, he is convinced of the truth of something without adequate evidence, only realizing too late that he has thrown away his most precious pearl. 

GRADE: B (Welles)

GRADE: A- (Parker)
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Material Copyright © 2001 Nigel Watson