Friday, January 30, 2015


Othello is a well-made, well-acted and incredibly frustrating film.

I didn’t realize I’d have such a strong reaction to it. I’d read the play, so I knew how the story went, but watching events unfold was much more visceral an experience. And quite frankly, not one I want to repeat.

To start with the good: the acting is great. Lawrence Fishburne has immense presence as Othello, and I like the passion and spirit of Irene Jacob’s Desdemona. Kenneth Branagh stole the show, but then again, that’s what Iago usually does. I especially like the motif of the chess pieces, and how his tipping them into the well foreshadows what happens at the end of the film. Beautiful sets, costumes, music, the works.

No, what made me not want to watch the film again was the story.

It was easy to see the roots of Othello’s jealousy. Set apart by virtue of his race, he holds on to his position among the upper-class Venetians because of his value as a general. But once he goes to Cyprus, the Turkish fleet has already been destroyed. That’s a joyous event, but it also means there’s nothing more for Othello to do there, no way to keep proving his worth. As far as insecurity goes, that’s enough of a breeding ground for Iago.

I kept wondering, though: what does Iago really want? If it’s to be Othello’s lieutenant, Iago gets that after he plies Cassio with drink and instigates a brawl. He could stop there, but instead he goes on to poison Othello’s mind against Desdemona. “I hate the Moor”, he says at one point, but later, he engages in a blood-brother ritual with Othello and tearfully embraces him.

The power of Branagh’s acting is to make these disparate elements seem different facets of the same complex character, rather than inconsistencies. I’m not sure what Iago hoped to end up with eventually—everyone dead except for himself? Maybe. But I didn’t need to know that to be fascinated by his personality, not to mention his ability to keep half a dozen puppets dancing at the same time.

The frustrating part of the film isn’t just to see how Othello swallows everything hook, line and sinker, because a lot of people would succumb to expert manipulation. It’s everything that happens after that. He could question Desdemona openly and try to trust her. Failing that, he could leave her.

Failing even that, he could, if he felt justified in murdering her, do so quickly and painlessly.

Instead he puts her through hell. He insults her, humiliates her, hits her and finally forces her to endure a terrifying ordeal and a long-drawn-out death. It was nothing short of domestic abuse. And no matter how many glycerine tears Othello himself cries in the process, I couldn’t help feeling this wasn’t so much a good, decent man giving in to his fatal flaw as a wolf who was finally getting to take his sheep suit off.

So to sum it up: a very well-done film that, because of the subject matter, I found too depressing to watch again.


Unknown said...

" It’s everything that happens after that. He could question Desdemona openly and try to trust her. Failing that, he could leave her."

Could he have left her? I don't know. I studied Othello in college, but I don't remember discussing the race aspect much. And I know nothing of interracial marriages in Renaissance Europe. Having said that, simply walking away from a marriage back then for people of the upper class was already difficult enough, but for such a scandalous one, it could have ruined them both. Not in anyway justifying that murder was the better option, but simply pointing out that "walking away" would have been too simple of a resolution for the time period.

Marian Perera said...

But wouldn't killing Desdemona have ruined Othello too? I'm not sure he could return to Venice and be welcomed by the Duke once he'd murdered her.

I agree that leaving Desdemona wouldn't have been good for her either, because she couldn't go back to her father's house, but I feel Othello picked the greater of two evils here.

And all this could have been avoided if he'd simply talked to her, believed Emilia when she said Desdemona was never alone with Cassio, or maybe even gone after Cassio himself.