directed by Tim Blake Nelson with Mekhi Phifer, Josh Hartnett, Julia Stiles, and Martin Sheen opens Aug. 31 at Pacific Place, Varsity, and others
YOU KNOW IT'S FALL when Shakespeare makes his seasonal return to the box office. This autumn's twist on the Bard is to restage Othello at a South Carolina prep school where there's precisely one black student, Odin (Shaft's Mekhi Phifer), who carries a factious basketball squad to victory after victory. Transplanted from battlefield to sport arena, this 18-year-old Moor of Venice has his jealous, two-faced teammate in Hugo (Pearl Harbor's impressively brooding Josh Hartnett) and his adoring lover in Desi (Julia Stiles, a vet of the '99 Taming of the Shrew remake 10 Things I Hate About You). Meanwhile, coach Martin Sheen—"the Duke"—overacts helplessly.
The slightly altered names and insufficiently altered plot mechanisms—eavesdropping at doors, teenagers giving heirloom scarves as gifts—hint at the flaws to this very topical, long-delayed adaptation. SIFFgoers liked it enough to vote Tim Blake Nelson best director this spring (perhaps owing to residual goodwill from his comic acting turn in O Brother, Where Art Thou?), but O's literal, leaden script feels like something Nelson's trying to disguise—not enhance. As the old tragic tale inevitably unfolds (backbiting, paranoia, strangulation), his blunt, arty cutaways to hawks—the school mascot—and doves are at odds with the real, recognizable intensity of teen loves and cliques. O works better on the hardwood (unlike so many inept Hollywood court sequences, e.g., Gus Van Sant's work in Finding Forrester) and on the sidelines. There, the methodical high school bullying and ostracization hint at richer themes than this halfsuccessful updating ever manages.
"One of these days, everyone's gonna pay attention to me," says Hugo. When that attention finally comes (TV cameras, flashing police car lights, etc.), it's with the now-familiar glare of high school violence in the media spotlight. Nelson is fully aware of O's Columbine context, and you wish that he'd simply jettisoned the Shakespeare and embraced the cell phones, hip-hop, and modern teen resentments that give rise to such supposedly inexplicable bloodshed.
What rings false today is how Hugo—the cynical mastermind—manipulates uneasy paladin Odin to the breaking point and kills the pudgy, rich, most picked-on kid along the way. As we know, it's that latter victimized figure, not the popular jock, who's most likely to pull the trigger. Spite-filled weaklings may not usually inspire movies, but if Nelson really wanted to reach for a musty volume with a despised, outcast hero perfectly primed for a high school killing spree, he should've chosen Richard II.
VISITING SEATTLE for the world premiere of O at SIFF (where his Eye of God debuted in '97), Tim Blake Nelson recalled how wary he was to direct yet another Shakespeare flick directed at teenagers. He remembers asking himself, "'How many times is the film industry going to ruin Shakespeare by putting it in a teen setting?' Conceptually, it was laughable." Then, upon reading the script, his attitude changed. "I thought, 'Well, perhaps there is something to this.' [N]ot only was it set in America, it was put in a high school as a tragedy pretty much intact."
Nelson hastens to add that O is a modern-language retelling of the play. "This isn't like Baz Luhrmann's Romeo and Juliet, which used the original text . . . and that's a movie I love. What I set out to do . . . was to make a really serious film for a young audience which never condescends, which never resorts to the cheap dumbing-down which the other adaptations have—for understandable reasons—resorted to. The number-one understandable reason among those was that most of those other adaptations are comedies. You can't dick around with the tragic text in the same way."