It’s not hard to see why director Tim Blake Nelson chose to update Shakespeare’s Othello. Not only is it one of the Bard’s most muscular, not to mention sexy, plays, but the decision was made during Hollywood’s Shakespeare-craze of 1998-2000. Now, after the film’s been hanging around for two whole years, the fad has passed and the idea no longer seems quite so clever. Not least because O must stand comparison to earlier filmed versions of Shakespeare’s play – excellent versions made by Orson Welles and Laurence Olivier. You may have heard of them.
Miramax dumped O after the Columbine shootings, scared by what they saw as a desire to exploit teen violence. Unfair. What Nelson and screenwriter Brad Kaaya are actually trying to do is examine teen violence, though sadly their scrutiny is somewhat clinical and clichéd, with little insight into either youth, jealousy or violence. Or, for that matter, Shakespeare.
In its favour, the strong young cast valiantly try to make O interesting. Mekhi 'Clockers' Phifer does an excellent job, ably embodying the pride and stature of a powerful captain (in this case, of a high school basketball team). He also features in some realistic basketball sequences and a truly racy love scene with Julia Stiles’ Desi. You have to feel for him, then, when his efforts are crudely undercut by the screenwriter’s ridiculous attempt to modernise Othello’s jealousy by having him resort to drugs.
Other updates are more successful. The decision to set events in a high school allows for the play’s jealousies to stem from many sources, even rivalry at sports, and the script makes a decent fist at retaining Will’s iambic pentameter amid all the modernday slang. Josh Hartnett’s Iago character, Hugo, also works, his hatred for O fuelled by the fact his dad (Martin Sheen) is the basketball coach and O’s the star player.