O follows in a long line of Shakespeare adaptations bringing the playwright’s vision and concepts to a supposedly new audience (Romeo & Juliet, Get Over It, Ten Things I Hate About You, amongst others). The film had a troubled release, originally completed in 1998 and then delayed and delayed because of the Columbine school shootings; scenes in the film suddenly became a little too close for comfort and the film was shelved until finally released in the US in 2001.
O takes on Othello and swaps out Venice and the military to an American prep school with a pretty good basketball team. Odin James (Mekhi Phifer) is the Most Valued Player on the team, and the only black in the school. He’s also dating the hugely popular and beautiful Desi (Julia Stiles). Hugo (Josh Hartnett) is the coach’s son, and jealous of not only Odin’s skill, but his relationship with Desi and with Michael (Andrew Keegan) – one of the sophomore players (and the Cassio of this film). Hugo dates Emily (Rain Phoenix). Yes, the relationships map out well to the original material. When Odin calls up Michael to share the Most Valued Player award during the season, Hugo’s envy eats him up enough to devise a plan that, he thinks, will restore some justice into the world… and to help this plan pan out he enlists the help of rich sop, Roger. The revenge plot revolves around making Odin believe Michael and Desi are having an affair. The story follows Othello pretty well, but unfortunately, even the reasonably good acting didn’t give enough emotional impact to make me truly care what happened to the characters at the shocking ending.
The relationship between Hugo and his father, Duke (Martin Sheen), adds a layer to the Othello storyline, as suddenly the character is vying for paternal love as well as for promotion. If the coach hadn’t been his father that layer would not exist – but it probably helps the story by adding reasons for Hugo to dislike Odin – the racism card is a lot harder to play in a modern film. There is some racism but, as other things, it doesn’t have the time to be properly developed and the filmmakers are careful about making an adult the one with the most in-built racism. Hugo simply uses it as a tool to further enrage Odin towards the end of the film.
As the film moves towards its climax, Hugo’s scheming becomes more complicated and involved, drawing in other characters, such as the hapless Emily and Roger. The ending shows no compromise from the original – despite the characters here being teenagers. This is perhaps the bravest and most laudable aspect of the film, it’s uncomfortable to watch in the same way as the final scenes of Othello are. The integrity of the story remains intact even if the impact is lessened slightly by the less epic love story within the film.
Director Tim Blake Nelson (Delmar in O Brother Where Art Thou) has done a reasonable but hardly brilliant job in bringing O to life. The acting is competent, with Josh Hartnett standing out as Hugo… his brooding is very good, really. Julia Stiles seems a little more flat than usual, although she raises the level in a least a handful of scenes. Mekhi Phifer does a good job of playing wounded, confused and torn with jealousy. The rest of the cast are adequate, though few of them have any real chance, as the drama here firmly revolves around Hugo. In the play there’s sometimes debate over whether Othello or Iago is the main character – in the film it’s definitely Hugo, highlighted by his ‘meaningful’ monologues.
The 16:9, anamorphic picture is clear and devoid of noticeable defects, skin tones are distinguished well and black is very black. However, the picture is also generally very dark – a persistent failing that shows up in many of the film’s important scenes. This may have been a choice by those making the film, another way to remind us it’s a dark story. But really, the majority of indoor and night scenes (and there are a lot of them) are so dark that it’s hard to see what’s going on. Personally, that bothered me; other people may find it atmospheric.
Ok, there’s nothing all that impressive about the use of sound in the film. It’s a fairly standard 5.1 soundtrack with little actual need for the back speakers. I noticed some real sound variations while watching this film, which seemed to go directly from ‘too quiet to hear’ straight into ‘much too loud’. So that was a bit of a problem. The music in the film bothered me too. Although the start and end is accented with operatic music played under monologues (which works well), every so often throughout the film there are small clips of hiphop and rap music that seem so out of place that they jar you away from the action, rather than fitting in well with it.
Because the disc I looked at was a review copy there were no extras included. However, the back of the case lists the theatrical trailer as an extra, so it’s likely that’s the only anticipated extra for this DVD. This seems a bit of a shame as the Region 1 DVD includes a director commentary, interviews with the cast and crew, deleted scenes and analysis of the basketball scenes.
O is definitely a valiant attempt to translate the Othello storyline of jealousy and love to a younger audience and to a new time and place. However, there’s a lack of emotional depth in the film, which – although adequately acted and directed – doesn’t have the final impact of the play. The impact here is instead targeted towards our feelings about teenage/school violence and how far teenagers will go in their petty jealousies.