Wednesday, July 21, 2004

The Tragedy of Othello: The Moor of Venice

* * * (out of four)
Seen 19 July 2004 at the Brattle Theater (Orson Welles: Rogue Genius)

Shakespeare's Othello has been adapted for film and television roughly 30 times, and has proven remarkably, well, adaptable. It's a fairly simple melodrama in terms of plot, but offers a wealth of different routes for directors to attack it. Orson Welles chose to go for a grand spectacle, and it makes for a strikingly beautiful picture, though the characters don't often live up to their settings.

Othello potentially has two tragic flaws (part of why the play itself is so malleable): He can be played as arrogant, paranoid, or somewhere in between. Welles chooses to tilt his Othello toward paranoid, likely to see threats against him because he feels his lieutenants resent serving under a black man. The trouble with this approach is that in order for it to work, you need a really good Iago. Micheál MacLiammóir, unfortunately, screams "don't trust me!" with his every look and action as the ensign who covets Othello's position. He just doesn't strike me as subtle enough to bring about Othello's downfall on the basis of one misplaced handkerchief and the right words in the right ears at the right time. Similarly, Robert Coote plays Roderigo as little more that stupid, which makes him easily duped by Iago but not as complicit.

On the positive side, Suzanne Cloutier makes a fine Desdemona. The actress playing Desdemona doesn't have a whole lot to do beyond being desirable enough to inflame Othello's jealousy, and Ms. Cloutier filled the bill there, but she makes Desdemona a sympathetic character, she makes her affection for Othello real enough that the audience finds themselves hoping that this version of the play will end differently. Welles also makes a fine Othello, dominating every scene he's in. His Moor is possessed of the charisma and skill necessary to rise to the top of the Venetian army and woo a young noblewoman despite the prejudice against his skin color, along with the hidden insecurity that ultimately destroys him.

Welles keeps the text intact while translating the play to film, but frees it of the bounds of the stage. Scenes are rearranged, and the action is filmed almost entirely on location in Italy and Morocco. The result is frequently beautiful - the Venetian backdrop adds to the early romance between Othello and Desdemona, and the locations standing in for Cyprus are large enough to make it believable that Othello could see but not hear a conversation between Desdemona and Michael Cassius. The war Othello and his men are fighting can also be shown, generating an external tension to add to the internal ones.

Shooting at those locations was expensive, though, and Welles had to stop production on the movie twice and act in other movies in order to fund it. The end result is worth it, but it does introduce some visual oddities - some actors' builds seem to shift at times, and the amount of makeup used to darken Welles's skin seems inconsistent. In his first appearance, I thought Welles had chosen to make his Othello look Arabic/North African (which would actually be a more representative Moorish appearance), but his skin appears much darker in other segments.

The credits for the movie indicated a 2002 restoration, and while that frequently does nice things for the black-and-white photography, the soundtrack was often sub-par. I guess there's only so much that can be done with a fifty-year-old print, but it does make following the dialogue a struggle at times. Someone who doesn't know the story may have trouble keeping up.

This Othello is probably not the greatest version of the play to be filmed, though I'd take it over Oliver Parker's version with Laurence Fishburne or Tim Blake Nelson's O. It remains a fine rendition of a remakrably persistent story, as well as an example of Orson Welles's great skill on both sides of the camera.

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