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This is the best film of a Shakespeare play that I have ever seen. (Throne of Blood is a great movie, but it's an adaptation, not really Shakespeare's Macbeth.) What makes the difference for me are the outstanding performances by the entire cast, not just Olivier. Maggie Smith's Desdemona is truly touching as a woman overwhelmed by fate. A young Derek Jacobi hits all the right notes as Michael Cassio: smart, loyal, eager to please, but a little immature. I haven't seen any other roles played by either Frank Finlay or Joyce Redman, but in any case, they're excellent here. I much prefer Olivier's Othello to his film role as Hamlet. That's because too many of Hamlet's lines were cut from that version. More text gives more characterization to Othello, and gives Olivier the chance to really fill the role, which he does beautifully. My only real complaint is that on the videotape, the widescreen picture is cropped too much. Everybody who is a fan of Shakespeare or any of the above mentioned actors should see this movie!
Olivier is truly awesome: I invite you to read his biography by Donald Spoto to see what went in to this characterization. Surely this is his best Shakespeare role, but must admit I wish he could have filmed Macbeth. Another especial comment on the direction--it couldn't have been easy to bring this from the stage to a video version, but I feel it came off beautifully. This was film Shakespeare at its best--until Branagh's Hamlet.
As this is a filmed stage production, some concessions must be made for the extravagant, loud, performances of some of the cast, although this over-acting does tend to get in the way. Laurence Olivier, as Othello, the moor of Venice, is extraordinary, and some moments in his performance are superb, but his constant habit of shouting at the top of his voice and throwing himself around the stage grates. His voice, made deeper by vocal training, will surprise those who are used to seeing Olivier in other films, where he does not play an Arab. Some of his better moments are his first appearance, his entrance into the brawl in which Cassio (an excellent Derek Jacobi) is banished, and, especaily, the moving final scene. Maggie Smith is an exemplary Desdemona, beleivably confused and upset. Joyce Redman is good, but also suffers Olivier's fate of overacting. Frank Finlay is an absolutely brilliant Iago, willingly talking to us, the audience, in his soliluquies, as though we were one of the characters, and taking malicious delight in his evil machinations. Overall, this is an impressive, though over-rated film. CAST RATING (out of 10) Laurence Oliver (6) Maggie Smith (9) Joyce Redman (6) Frank Finlay (10) Derek Jacobi (8)
Viewing this superb filmed stage production (as well and faithfully
filmed as any stage production could be) many may question why a
Shakespearian actor of Olivier's standing resisted playing The Moor of
Venice as hard as he did. The reason is absolutely plain in his
performance - Paul Robeson's world shattering Broadway performance on
Broadway for the Theatre Guild in 1943 (tragically, never filmed, but
recorded complete by Columbia Records).
It was Robeson (the first major black actor to play the part in a major commercial production - 280 performances at the Shubert Theatre, where A CHORUS LINE would eventually set musical records) who changed how we look at Othello - previously usually played as the MOOR Shakespeare wrote (frequently played in blackface, but the key element was the Islamic roots in North Africa - see Orson Welles' 1952 film, documenting for virtually the only time on sound film the earlier tradition - Welles would not have made a credible black man), and critics in 1943 drew the distinction between a Moor and a "Black-a-Moor". After Robeson, it became nearly impossible to think of anyone but a black actor in the role. Either way, the tale of the perpetual outsider, cautioning against jealousy and spousal abuse AGES before they became popular "causes" rings remarkably true.
Finally persuaded to add the Moor of Venice to his Shakespearian repertoire, and ultimately (he toured it all over Europe first) to his long list of distinguished Shakespearian films - after his brilliant HENRY V, it is probably his best - Olivier did everything in his power to honor, even copy, the Robeson performance.
YES, Frank Findlay runs away with the piece as Iago, and Maggie Smith's accent occasionally jars, but younger audiences will be astonished at the young "Professor McGonagall". This and THE HONEY POT may be her best films. It is remarkable Smith didn't have whiplash after playing over a hundred performances of the extremely physical bedroom scene. All told this all star cast still surpasses the excellent, frequently AS well acted but shorter, more "movie-movie" versions from Laurence Fishburne et al..
Olivier is so good in this role which has been one of Fishburne's best, I'd love to see what Fishburne could do with HENRY V; I bet it would be great.
The National Theatre production of 'Othello' was legendary - one of
Laurence Olivier's iconic roles from the era when white actors still
blacked up to play the lead part.
But is it really any good on the screen? It is essentially filmed theatre with an overpowering performance from Olivier, which is perhaps too large for viewing away from the stage - but it does benefit from three key parts of excellence in support (Frank Finlay as Iago, in Shakespeare's longest role as far as numbers of lines is concerned; Maggie Smith as a delicate Desdemona; and a very young Derek Jacobi as Cassio, resplendent in fine clothes and groomed hair).
Trimmed slightly from the full play, it nevertheless keeps the main characters and the sense of the story, and plays at nearly two and a half hours. Tight direction, good diction, and - as far as filmed theatre can be - adequate sets give this Othello an edge which means it is still relevant today.
I've always felt Othello to be more Iago's play than Othello's. Iago is
the guy whose subtle machinations keep the whole thing going. In fact
William Shakespeare probably should have entitled the play Iago
Othello gets the title because the emphasis is on his reactions to Iago's hints of infidelity in regard to Othello's new wife Desdemona. The proud Moor is destroyed by the 'green eyed monster' who when he gets a hold doesn't let go.
Why's all this happening? Because Othello, a Moorish soldier of fortune in the pay of the Duke of Venice passes Iago over for a promotion and gives it to another favorite named Cassio. All that sucking up gone for naught, Iago plans subtle revenge.
But in order to make this work, it's more than Othello he has to maneuver. He drops lies and suspicions to Othello, Desdemona, Cassio, and even his own wife Emilia, to another suitor for Desdemona named Rodrigo, in short to just about the rest of the cast. It's why I think Iago's character is central.
Nevertheless Othello earned for Laurence Olivier another nomination for Best Actor and for Maggie Smith as Desdemona, Best Actress. Frank Finlay as the subtle and clever Iago and Joyce Redman as his wife Emilia got nominations in the Supporting Actor categories. None of them came up a winner though.
In one of his earliest screen performances you'll find Derek Jacobi as the loyal, brave, but slightly dense Cassio. And as Rodrigo who Iago plays like a piccolo is Robert Lang, both of whom are cast perfectly.
Unlike Olivier's other Shakespearean work, this is essentially a photographed stage play. But the sets are just fine and since it's a story about palace intrigue, the palace sets are more than appropriate.
I'd be hard pressed to say whether this or the Orson Welles version is better, judge for yourself.
This is a filmed play. Second, his interpretation is a valid one and I didnt know there was a rule that actors could not play characters of different races. That kind of reverse racism is exactly what is to be avoided. Judge the acting for acting's sake. Olivier uses a full octave voice lower for the performance, unatural to his usual tenor voice. If one simply judges the acting, it should be seen as a powerful piece of work. Another performance of this is by Anthony Hopkins, also quite excellent, with different shadings.
Olivier got a lot of flack at the time for the Al Jolson performance, from people who failed to take into account the exaggeration of gesture and make-up that goes with a stage production. That's all it is, a film of a stage production, but visually the stage design is good and the photography presents it excellently.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Olivier's performance is astounding. He runs the gamut from sweet and
playful to bloody rage. Best of all is his spot-on clarity in conveying
the seventeenth-century language. For this viewer, the Moorish makeup
is honorable and character-appropriate. Throughout, one can see
Othello's heroic disregard of the racist comments lobbed at him by the
The DVD is completely remastered by Warners. Learmedia, an arts-oriented DVD vendor in Canada has a PAL standard DVD for sale. See my comment in the Message Boards here for more about the DVD.
Some trivia: The Italian film director Franco Zeffirelli said of Olivier's stage version: "I was told that this was the last flourish of the romantic tradition of acting. It's nothing of the sort. It's an anthology of everything that has been discovered about acting in the last 3 centuries. It's grand and majestic, but it's also modern and realistic. I would call it a lesson for us all." John Steinbeck said that Olivier's performance on-stage was the greatest he had ever seen. Other critics, particularly Bosley Caruthers in the New York Times, trashed the performance as rubbish both on-stage and screen, accusing Olivier of making the noble Moor into a racist caricature. Sammy Davis Jr.' claimed that Olivier had come to see him perform multiple times and copied some of his mannerisms in his Othello. Olivier said that the play belongs to Iago, who could make the Moor look a credulous idiot. When Kenneth Tynan told Olivier that Orson Welles had described Othello as "a natural baritone", Olivier, a natural tenor, took voice lessons for several weeks. At the first read through, his voice was an octave lower than any one had heard it before. It was said that his vocal range was so immense that by a single new inflexion he could point the way to a whole new interpretation. Tynan wrote in his book "Profiles" (Nick Hern Books, 1989): "In the opening exchanges with Iago, Olivier displays the public mask of Othello: a Negro sophisticated enough to conform to the white myth about Negroes, pretending to be simple and not above rolling the eyes, but in fact concealing (like any other aristocrat) a highly developed sense of racial superiority... Olivier's was not a noble, 'civilised' Othello but a triumphant black despot, aflame with unadmitted self-regard. So far from letting Iago manipulate him, he seemed to manipulate Iago."
I am very fond of Shakespeare's work so I was all for seeing Olivier's Othello having loved his Hamlet so much. There is some stiff competition, namely the brilliant Orson Welles film, but this doesn't overshadow or is in the shadow of this stiff competition, if anything it is on par with them. In short I honestly believe it is one of the finest Shakespeare adaptations and films. It is very well made, with exemplary photography and settings without ever feeling too stage bound. The music is haunting and evocative, the writing is outstanding(not only in terms of written quality but also how it is delivered and how well adapted it is), the characterisations have complexity especially Othello and the story still is compelling and moving. You couldn't have had a more perfect cast either, I think Laurence Olivier's Othello has more depth than his Hamlet, and to this day I still consider it one of his best performances on films, he is extraordinary. Maggie Smith is poignant, delicate and determined as Desdemona, and a young Derek Jacobi is excellent as Cassio. Frank Finlay's Iago is clever, conniving and altogether brilliant, for me the best of the supporting turns. In conclusion, fantastic really. 10/10 Bethany Cox
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