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Old 31st Jan 2011, 12:15   #1
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Default Othello (1990)

Iago was pretty much top of the list for Literary Villains over on that thread earlier last month, and here he is in Trevor Nunn’s filming of his RSC stage production of Othello, twitching his moustache in “motiveless malignity”. This 1990 staging is regarded as one of the better, perhaps the best, versions on offer - it has a solid cast of Ian McKellen, Imogen Stubbs, Willard White and Zoe Wanamaker and a solid screenplay that includes the bulk of the play, allowing the full depth of the love between Othello and Desdemona to be felt, as well as the full depth of the hatred and plotting of Iago.

Willard White is a good choice for Othello, as his booming operatic voice does the greatest justice to the wonderful poetry given to him. He is a powerful and lyrical leader of men and then turns by degrees into a brutish parade-ground thug, snapping out doubts and orders, snapping his love and trust in his young wife into little pieces. Once his duped jealousy and crime is understood, he movingly weeps for his dead wife, as the ‘pearl’ cast away by a base Indian.

Both Imogen Stubbs and Zoe Wanamaker steal acting honours for tremendous portrayals which can be left underdone (notably, Irene Jacobs in Branagh’s film version). Stubbs is youthful and innocent and endearingly loving but not so much so that she loses our sympathy for not appreciating her husband’s cruel doubt of her chastity, or favouring Cassio’s cause too naively. Her bedroom scene with Iago’s wife, Emilia, shows a good woman who will not understand the reality of faithlessness but who will later fight with all her strength to perpetuate the truth of her own faithfulness. Stubbs is good at revealing this kind of hardy deteminedness, as she does as Viola in Nunn’s film version of Twelfth Night.

Zoe Wanamaker acts her little socks off – something she barely has a chance to do now with her comedic role in My Family – and proves there should be more of this kind of thing both offered her, and also filmed for posterity: this film is 20 years old already.

And so to Ian McKellen – and I found his performance strangely non-compelling, though I think it smacks of heresy these days to say so. Buttoned into a C19th US Civil War uniform ( I think), he seemed to be creating an early template of the Richard III he would perform for the RSC and for Richard Loncraine’s film of the same in 1995. He makes much of the fourth wall removed, with asides and knowing glances to camera; he exhibits delight in manipulating and using others for some vague personal retribution, mostly non-specific but attributed to envy or jealousy or imputed cuckoldry; he is the bluff soldier using camaraderie and a batman's "man's man" knowledge to screw doubt into his general's noble brow. For me, the part was skilfully played but was over-familiar – McKellen’s acting style has certain arched eyebrows, lip twitches, inflections, that these days feel more like McKellen than something arising out of Iago himself.

The very dark staging of the play as a chamber piece also deadens the mood and the engagement with the text. This is a three hour + play, delivered in a series of military barracks backdrops in neutral colours, with no DVD subtitles to help you through the mumbled bits. For all the faults of the Branagh film – savagely cutting the text, a nondescript Desdemona, an Othello without that rich soldierly bearing - he is good at incorporating colour and action and movement into his films. This Othello is alive but hard to enjoy, and although the drip-drip of Iago’s poisonous words has more time to work, the end result is duller and more laboured.

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