Two Othellos

I’m teaching Othello this week and next so I rented two movie versions of it to watch this weekend. Of the four major Shakespearean tragedies, I know Othello the least well and it’s fun and fascinating to return to it after many years. The films, however, have been a big surprise.

I was curious and excited about the Orson Welles version from 1952. Could I get over the weirdness of Welles in blackface to enjoy Welles in a role that I knew he’d be good in? Well, it’s a very good movie though I had to watch it in chunks. It’s starkly black and white, full of serious, European symbolist imagery. There are some visually stunning shots: I loved a particularly vertiginous moment where Othello backs Iago to the edge of a Cyprus cliff and the camera, over their heads, captures Iago’s fear and the crashing surf as Othello threatens to kill Iago if his insinuations about Desdemona prove false. It’s also nice to set the attempted murder of Cassio in a Turkish bath, a sword piercing through slats in a wooden walkway over the water. (Is it a sewer, as the DVD documentary suggests, or just a kind of canal serving the bath?)

Overall, however, it is a dark film. I don’t mean that metaphorically; I mean that it is often hard to see. Furthermore, I didn’t think much of Iago and sometimes found it hard to tell him apart from Roderigo. This is actually a big problem: Iago is the bad guy and probably the most important role in the play to think through carefully; Roderigo is a fool and a tool—an instrument through whom Iago can plan some of his villainy. Sometimes, when the blond actor playing Cassio (the second of Iago’s targets) was in darkness, I couldn’t even tell Cassio from Roderigo or Iago. Pair that with imperfect sound, a camera rarely on a speaker’s lips, and lots of expressivist angle shots, and you get a movie that is just kind of confusing.

What a nice surprise then, to turn to the Kenneth Branagh 1995 “Othello” (with Laurence Fishburne in the title role and Branagh hamming it up as Iago). Branagh is a ham but I like him and, frankly, it’s useful to have him looking straight at the camera to say, “I hate the Moor.” Got it.

I haven’t finished watching it, but, boy, I like it. It’s visually so clear. It’s not sophisticated as film but, to my shame, I think I have discovered that I don’t care as much about visual sophistication as I do about other things. Plus, the movie is really interested in Desdemona and turns her into something other than a new Ophelia. She is not at all like Ophelia in Shakespeare’s play: she is a brave, strong, confident young woman from go whereas the Ophelia we see is already confused and a little broken. Desdemona, by contrast, wishes she could have been such a man as Othello. And when her father disapproves of her marriage, she joins her husband at war. But really, I love just being able to watch the movie without straining after it, to enter more deeply into the situations because I can see that that guy on the right is Cassio and the one on the left is Iago.