Review by Kim Hollis
September 4, 2001
"Re-imagining" is all the rage in Hollywood these days. From Jane Austen to Dr. Seuss to Planet of the Apes to The Musketeer, old stories are being given new life by directors and screenwriters who transform the tales with new interpretations.
Shakespeare has always been prime stuff for updating. Audiences are extremely familiar with the source material, and many of the centuries-old plays are ripe to be altered for modern spectators. In the past two or so years, moviegoers have been treated to reinventions of Titus, Hamlet, Love's Labour's Lost, and a Midsummer Night's Dream, all intended for adults who would likely be expected to at least have a passing familiarity with a varied number of the Bard's works. Following a different path are films like Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet and the Taming of the Shrew remake 10 Things I Hate About You, both of which serve to cleverly introduce Shakespeare to a younger, teen-oriented audience. Thanks to its star power and change in setting, "O" serves to do the same; however, like its predecessors, this reworking of the tragedy of Othello works so well that its appeal extends well beyond that somewhat limited demographic.
In the case of "O," our Othello is renamed Odin James, and he's a star basketball player at a South Carolina prep school. Just as Othello is a soldier on the battlefield, so is Odin a leader both on the court and amongst his peers. His Desdemona gets the shortened moniker of Desi, and instead of a senator's daughter, she is the daughter of the dean of students. Iago, our spiteful villain, becomes Hugo Goulding, the basketball coach's son, and a young man with real motives for his jealousy and vengefulness.
It's those dark motives that are the real driving force behind the film and the fine performances that are delivered, particularly those from Mekhi Phifer (Odin) and Josh Hartnett (Hugo). From the outset of the film, Hugo's bitterness and envy are the focus, as we immediately see that he views Odin as a competitor both for popularity and for the love and attention of his father, Coach Duke Goulding (Martin Sheen). One of Hugo's first machinations leads to a reaction from Odin that believably foreshadows and sets the stage for later events.
A great deal of credit must go to director Tim Blake Nelson (whom you may know best as O Brother, Where Art Thou?'s Delmar). The camera is simply allowed to tell its story here, always framing Hugo in such a way that this character's freefall toward the brink of madness is something the audience can palpably sense. Additionally, Nelson has a tremendous sense for how to set the appropriate mood at any given moment, and uses both music and symbolism to get the point across without pounding the audience over the head.
Other than the fact that the Iago character is actually given a strong motive for his actions, Brad Kaaya's screenplay makes no pretense at being more than what it is: a fairly faithful adaptation of the 400-year-old Shakespearean tragedy. If there are occasional moments where characters (I'm thinking of Desi in particular) don't feel as fully developed as one might hope, it bears noting that the characters in the original source material are rather one-dimensional in the first place, and it's to Kaaya's credit that he manages to infuse Hugo and Odin with an unexpected amount of depth in the film's short run-time.
Though Desi is perhaps given short shrift with regard to complexity, the role is played quite capably by Julia Stiles, who also starred in two previous Shakespeare adaptations, including the aforementioned 10 Things I Hate About You. While the part is not particularly meaty, she is able to convey a wide range of emotions (including adoration, pain, betrayal and real anger) with a fine degree of subtlety and a certain believable earnestness.
The powerful performances are all the more impressive given that "O" was originally scheduled for release in October of 1999 but was pushed back and eventually shelved for two years by Miramax before Lions Gate eventually picked it up and locked it in for a Labor Day 2001 release. While both Hartnett and Stiles have compiled rather impressive resumés since that time, both actors show a remarkable level of intensity at an apparently early time in their careers. The skills they exhibit in "O" should allow them to build on the momentum of their highly-successful movies from earlier this year (Save the Last Dance for Stiles, and Pearl Harbor for Hartnett). One can only wish similar success for Phifer, who stars in no major upcoming motion pictures, but surely is deserving of notice.
The release delays give some relevance to the question of whether "O" is perhaps a bit too dark to be suitable for teen audiences. Initially, the film was moved from the schedule due to concerns about its appropriateness in light of the Columbine incident. As you can probably imagine if you've ever read any Shakespearean tragedy, let alone Othello, the climax of the story is extremely violent and bleak, and updating the plot to be more anachronistically correct led to some uncomfortable (if unintentional) parallels to the real-life news events.
Nonetheless, "O" is a film that mature teens should be able to handle. It deals with a number of themes that people who fall in that age group will find notable and attention-grabbing. Competition, jealousy, peer pressure, honesty, trust and loyalty all play significantly into the plot, and while all of these concepts are likely to touch a nerve with viewers of any age, the freshness and topicality are likely to strike a real chord with teenagers.
It just happens to be a bonus that not only will teens be given a superb introduction to a classic play, but they'll also be seeing a fine film that surprisingly doesn't preach about the appropriateness of the actions of its characters. Viewers are allowed to draw their own conclusions, because all of the individuals who figure into the story make normal, human mistakes and errors in judgment, much as we all do every single day. Though "O" is decidedly not uplifting, the film does provide a singularly satisfying movie-going experience on many levels. I have to believe Shakespeare would be pleased.