Thursday, 25 April 2013

Othello on the Screen: 
Welles (1952), Olivier (1965), White (1990), Fishburne (1996)

Othello (1952)

Orson Welles – Othello
Micheál MacLiammóir – Iago
Suzanne Cloutier – Desdemona
Fay Compton – Emilia
Michael Laurence – Cassio
Robert Coote – Roderigo

Directed by Orson Welles.
B&W. 90 min / 93 min (TCM print)

Orson Welles turned out to be much more disappointing than I expected – at least as an actor. He greatly downplays the character, emphasising the nobility inherent in it, and that's fine with me. The trouble is that he goes too far and Othello comes off very unconvincingly as a meek lamb. Welles, moreover, often seems too preoccupied with the words and pays too little attention to their meaning. At least to me, he seldom sounds like a human being.

Orson Welles as Othello
As a director, however, Welles is brilliant. Except for a few rough moments, when one is at loss what actually happens, the movie is a visual tour de force. It's black-and-white, of course, and the camera work is not up to modern standards, but there are many moments that are visually haunting. The opening scene provides a memorable example. It shows the funeral of Othello and Desdemona, with Iago being locked up in a hanging cage. This is not in the play, but it looks majestic on the screen. Throughout the whole movie Welles' use of visual angles and lighting is masterful.

Unfortunately, the visual side is the only real merit of this film. Why it is generally and generously praised I really don't know. The play is severely cut, with explanatory narratives inserted occasionally, and both the continuity and the characters suffer from that. Orson Welles is easily the finest part of the cast, but that's simply because the rest is dismal. I don't even remember the names of those who played Iago, Desdemona and Cassio. They are not worth remembering anyway.

It's a fascinating historical curiosity, Welles' Othello, but hardly anything more.

Othello (1965)

Laurence Olivier – Othello
Frank Finlay – Iago
Maggie Smith – Desdemona
Joyce Redman – Emilia
Derek Jacobi - Cassio
Robert Lang – Roderigo

Directed by Stuart Burges.
Colour. 165 min. Based on the 1964 production in the National Theatre directed by John Dexter.

Trailer with Laurence Olivier.

Stuart Burge's movie is remarkably fine visually. It is rather static compared to the modern Hollywood wonders, but for a filmed stage production it is very well shot and very well directed. The sets and the costumes are simple and repetitive, but effective enough. The movie now comes in superb stereo sound that renders every word with exemplary clarity, and in splendid colour that's quite amazing for a 1965 production of BHE (British Home Entertainment). Last but not least, there are relatively few cuts, mostly judicious ones (e.g. the rhymed couplets of Brabantio and the Duke in Act I), occasionally not so (e.g. Iago's turning Desdemona's goodness into a pitch to enmesh them all).

Leaving aside problems with interpretations, the acting is absolutely outstanding. People who still claim that Shakespeare cannot be spoken naturally should really see this film. The flow of speech is nearly flawless, the rhythm and the various inflections are magnificently executed. Nearly every word is audible, and it is worth hearing. Looking into the parts themselves, however, reveal some disturbing nuances.

Laurence Olivier as Othello
The chief bone of contention is Olivier's Othello. This is an extremely unorthodox and controversial interpretation. And I would lie if I said that I enjoy it half as much as Olivier's Hamlet or Richard III. For the sake of charity I will pass over the horrendous make-up (this Othello evidently comes from Sudan, if not from Congo), the weird accent and the clumsy walk: all this was no doubt quite acceptable to the Elizabethan audience, if not to the modern one. My only concern here is not that this is a slightly racist treatment of the character (though that's bad enough), but that I am not sure the delivery of the poetry is true to Shakespeare's spirit.

Olivier's Othello is a perplexing affair. Virtually all great scenes with him – with the Venetian senate in Act I, with Iago in Act III, with Desdemona and Emilia in Act IV, the final one in Act V – are bizarre mixtures of deeply moving moments that nearly bring tears to my eyes and hammy histrionics that border on farcical caricature. It goes without saying that Othello is a part that would benefit from some overt-the-top acting – but within a reason. Olivier's Moor all too often looks and sounds like a savage, and hardly the noble one. Now, Othello is keen on exaggerating his own crudeness and lack of social graces – ''Rude am I in speech'', ''And have not those soft parts of conversation'' – but there is hardly anything in his lines to suggest such shouting and crying, not to mention the elaborate gymnastics, as are regularly employed here. In his more restrained moments, most notably in the great final speech which he delivers with tears in his eyes, Olivier is deeply affecting.

Whatever misgivings one might have about Olivier's interpretation of Othello – and I have many – it cannot be denied that his acting has consistency and coherence that are quite extraordinary. It's nearly impossible for me to believe that this is the same man who played Richard III ten years earlier and Hamlet still seven years before that. It's not just the make-up, although it does help. The voice, much lower than usual, and the whole body language are startlingly different in every aspect. I have seldom been convinced in Olivier's nearly mythical status as strongly as when I watch his Othello. I completely disagree with a thousand things, yet I find him totally compelling. I can't get my eyes off him. This must be great acting all right.

Certainly, if Othello moves you deeply, you should see this movie. If it doesn't, of course you shouldn't. Despite my reservations, I am glad that Olivier (58 years old in 1965) finally managed to preserve his Othello for posterity.

Othello (Laurence Olivier) and Iago (Frank Finlay)
Iago of Frank Finlay is every bit as accomplished but very nearly perfect, interpretation-wise. I often see his performance described as ''underplayed''. This, thank Heavens, is quite true. It is absolutely essential that Iago must not be made into a bluff jester, for then the rest of the cast look very stupid for being taken in. There are at least four Iagos in the play – with Othello, with Cassio, with Roderigo, with Emilia – and Finlay is totally convincing at all fronts. Not only the other characters, but the audience, too, is never in doubt about his honesty. Because of his marvellous restraint, the few slightly outlandish gestures he allows himself (e.g. imitating a bull with horns) are all the more charming and effective.

(A piece of trivia for movie buffs. If you have the nagging doubt that Frank Finlay seems familiar to you, that you have seen him somewhere else much older, this may be because he played the part of the Father in Roman Polanski's The Pianist, some 37 years after this Othello. Mr Finlay has aged well; his face is still recognisable, although Iago's grey hair has become snowy white.)

Clockwise from top left:
Othello (Laurence Olivier), Desdemona (Maggie Smith),
Iago (Frank Finlay), Emilia (Joyce Redman)
The rest of the cast is very fine indeed. Maggie Smith actually makes Desdemona better than she is on paper. Who cares about Desdemona really? She is just a piece of stage furniture, dramatically very convenient but with no character at all. Well, Maggie Smith made me feel almost sorry for her in the end. The young and dashing Derek Jacobi is a terrific Cassio to the last word; his drunken scene is hilarious. Joyce Redman, apart from her nearly losing her voice from shouting in the final scene, is a most decent Emilia.

All in all, this is a most powerful production, warts and all. I was astonished to read once Olivier's describing his performance here as ''tired''. If that amount of raw energy is ''tired'', I do wonder what he must have looked like on the stage. It is regrettable that this production never made it into a full-scale movie, but we should be grateful that it was preserved at all. In addition to the explosive Olivier, the movie boasts superb supporting cast and accomplished direction by Stuart Burges. A must-see; even if you came to detest Olivier’s Othello, there is a lot more to enjoy here.

Othello (1990)
(Theatre Night: Season 5, Episode 1)

Willard White – Othello
Ian McKellen – Iago
Imogen Stubbs – Desdemona
Zoë Wanamaker – Emilia
Sean Baker- Cassio
Michael Grandage – Roderigo

Directed by Trevor Nunn.
Colour. 204 min. TV version of the Royal Shakespeare Company production from their 1989 season in Stratford and London.

In a single sentence, Ian McKellen ruins completely a remarkably hideous movie.

Ian McKellen does his ruining effect by being far too brilliant for this outstandingly ugly production, full of mediocre acting and amateurish direction. He is the only reason to inflict a good deal of pain on your eyes by seeing this movie.

Ian McKellen is a born actor. Especially when he obviously relishes the part, as he did Richard III also, he has the miraculous ability to invest every word with a special meaning. At the same time he remains perfectly natural – an even greater miracle. Even when he resorts to histrionics, which is seldom as in the passionate "I hate the Moor", he still sounds, and looks, totally convincing. He delivers all soliloquies directly to the camera, a most compelling illusion of intimacy, and it's not hard to see how, in all other scenes, he takes in all the rest of the cast that he is the jovial, hearty, "honest Iago". This is a superb portrayal of complex and fascinating character, more than worthy of standing besides Frank Finlay and Kenneth Branagh.

Unfortunately, the rest of the cast, though not really bad, is quite a bit below McKellen's level.

Willard Whyte has a magnificent voice and his pronunciation is exemplary; you need no subtitles to write down the complete part under his dictation. But in the beginning he underplays the character so much, that his outbursts later seem unconvincing. Some of his more robust moments – like his blowing his love to heaven – are pretty ridiculous. As a general rule, he is too mechanical and too artificial in his delivery; too calculating and careful
to infuse the Moor with passion. He suffers from TWS (The Welles Syndrome). For the most part he sounds like an actor who tries really hard to do justice to a part which is just beyond him; his delivery is more like a dictation or recitation. An interesting and decent performance, on the whole, certainly worth seeing, yet vastly forgettable.

Imogen Stubbs does nothing special to elevate the role of Desdemona above the level of a foolish girl who has a crush on the war hero – only to become his nagging wife. The part has more to it than that, but Miss Stubbs doesn't know how – or simply can't – bring it out. Emilia, Cassio and Roderigo are rather fine, but none of them – despite very few cuts in the text – is especially notable either.

I have never understood the passion for modernized staging that seems to have obsessed both the theatre and the opera stage for quite some time now. To justify itself such staging must either improve the dramatic strength of the original or has a special aesthetic appeal. Trevor Nunn's doesn't and hasn't. The 19th century costumes and sets are bare and drab to the extreme. The lighting is much too dark. The embarrassingly clumsy direction might have come from some of the less talented students of the local art academy.

All in all, TV theatre at its worst. I am awed by people who find such productions beautiful and/or dramatically strong. I find them ugly and tedious. Still, for Ian McKellen's subtle and cunning Iago this film is a must-see for all fans of Shakespeare's Othello. The rest of the cast provides but an occasional moment of mild insight diluted with much lacklustre reciting of great poetry. The abominable direction and the hideous production is the necessary evil to be endured.

Othello (1995)

Laurence Fishburne – Othello
Kenneth Branagh – Iago
Irene Jacob – Desdemona
Anna Patrick – Emilia
Nathaniel Parker – Cassio
Michael Maloney – Roderigo

Adapted and directed by Oliver Parker.
Colour. 123  min.

Oliver Parker's movie is visually impressive and makes a fine use of the many advantages offered by modern cinema. The diversity of locations is wonderful, the sets and the costumes are sumptuous historical affairs, the direction is nearly perfect, with lots of fine close-ups and many gorgeous mass scenes. The play is greatly cut, of course, but most of the finest passages – Iago's soliloquies, Othello's final speech – are retained, although the action may seem a little rushed from time to time.

I am dismayed to see the movie accused of ''excessive sexuality''. There is no such thing. There are some steamy scenes, certainly, but all of them, the consummation of Othello's marriage and his fantasies about Cassio and Desdemona, are crucial to the plot – unless one takes a prudish point of view that hardly suits Shakespeare. All sex scenes, of course, are very stylishly done. For my part, they add a special flavour which makes the whole story more convincing. It might be argued, on the other hand, that this shifts Othello's feelings too much to the carnal side. Then again, this is an adaptation, and it should be expected to take liberties with the original.

The cast is the real problem in this movie.

Othello (Laurence Fishburne) and Iago (Kenneth Branagh)
Laurence Fishburne looks fine for Othello, and he is an excellent actor, but his delivery of the text is problematic. Only in the final scene he finally manages to convey something of the Moor's innate nobility of soul. But in many other places – the Venetian senate, the brawl – he completely fails to project Othello's natural authority. (''Keep up your bright swords, for the dew will rust them'' always make me wince.) All too often he sounds too mechanical, too calculated, too artificial. He seems much too concerned about his pronunciation, but not enough about the meaning of the words; again the Welles Syndrome, only much aggravated. When there is no talking – the epileptic fit, the first jealous thoughts, the smothering of Desdemona – Fishburne delivers passionate and compelling performances.

Irene Jacob is an even greater disappointment. Leaving aside that her large features don't fit my personal ideas of feminine loveliness, she is even more stilted and wooden than Fishburne. Even in the final scene she doesn't manage to do anything memorable. Then again, as I have said many times, her character is hardly worth bothering about. One nice little change of the original is Desdemona's recovery of consciousness only to die without uttering a word. Perhaps I am too harsh on the girl. Considering that this is not just her first Shakespearean experience, but first movie in English at all, she could have been much worse.

Kenneth Branagh completely steals the show. That's to be expected, of course. He is the only one among the principals with any experience with Shakespeare. In fact, he is a Shakespearean veteran: on the next year he made his Hamlet (1996), behind his back he already had Henry V (1989) and Much Ado About Nothing (1993).

Now this is a tremendous interpretation of Iago. I am as much fascinated with it as I am disappointed with Branagh's Hamlet. There are no hammy histrionics here. This Iago is no cheap buffoon that makes you wonder how anybody, let alone everybody, could trust him. Branagh's acting is so convincing that one can almost believe that Iago really cares for Othello's suffering, really wants to help Roderigo, really is sorry for Cassio's loss of reputation. Indeed, in his first soliloquy Iago may almost make you feel sorry for him!

Kenneth Branagh as Iago
Much of this fascination comes from the fact that Iago delivers all of his soliloquies directly to the camera, an approach I have always found extremely compelling. Occasionally, he also glances furtively to the camera, as if to invite you in his private machinations. One such moment is when he hugs Roderigo, who is totally taken in that the Ancient would give everything to help him. We know better: a single glance by Branagh is enough to convince us that Roderigo is already a dead man. And there is one other moment, even more effective, when Iago, while reflecting how he would turn Desdemona's virtue into a net to enmesh them all, actually blackens the camera with his own hand. Now this is brilliant, or, in another four words, great acting, great directing.

My only slight disappointment with Iago, or rather with the adaptation, is that in the final scene he should lie, stabbed and probably dying, together with the other three corpses. It's not that Iago doesn't deserve death. It's just not dramatically effective. A much better solution would have been his regarding the bloodshed in the bed with an ironic smile.

The supporting cast has some fine members. Michael Maloney is a great Roderigo; quite an achievement considering how ungrateful the part is. Nathaniel Parker is good if a little bland as Cassio. (Interestingly enough, both of these actors have played Laertes on the screen: Michael in Branagh's adaptation, 1996; Nathaniel in Zeffirelli's, 1990.) The completely unknown to me Anna Patrick, an actress with singularly square but not unattractive face, is a superb Emilia; in the final scene she almost steals the show from Othello. Pierre Vaneck is remarkably memorable in the minor part of Brabantio. It was a pleasure to see again Gabriele Ferzetti (the Duke). Nearly three decades earlier he had become well-known as the railroad tycoon Morton from Sergio Leone's classic Once Upon a Time in the West (1968). Enough trivia.

In conclusion, this is visually beautiful, briskly paced, and imaginatively directed movie. As an adaptation of Shakespeare's mighty tragedy, it is worth seeing mostly for Branagh’s mesmerising Iago, to a much lesser extent for Fishburne’s Moor or Anna Patrick’s Emilia. As an introduction to Othello on the screen, it is an excellent starting point before you switch to longer versions with fewer cuts.

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