Watching the new version of Othello, you may be struck by the idea that William Shakespeare was the original gangsta rapper, busting iambic pentameter about an exploited black man (played here by Laurence Fishburne, with two earrings, squiggly tattoos, and a lizard gaze) who kills his wife because he thinks she’s whoring around with a trusted friend (Nathaniel Parker’s Cassio).
There’s enough violence in the original Othello to make William Bennett faint into the arms of C. DeLores Tucker: Stabbing, smothering, and maiming occur with clocklike regularity. The villain? An evil white devil, to be sure: Kenneth Branagh as a soulless Iago, who nurtures doubt in Othello about the faithfulness of his new wife, Desdemona (Irene Jacob, as radiant as a young Ingrid Bergman but acting like an even dimmer bulb than the usual Desdemona portrayals).
Filmed in Italy under the direction of Oliver Parker, this Othello is a period piece shot mostly in dark, gloomy rooms. Jettisoning much of Shakespeare’s dialogue in an effort to keep word-weary viewers awake, Parker has come up with a neat stylistic trick. He has Branagh lie and connive, then turn to the camera to confide in us, delivering speeches about treachery and deceit with a knowing smirk that forces us to identify with him. Indeed, Parker makes Iago such a beguiling slyboots that the balance of the play is upset: The bad guy is more charming and adroit than our tragic hero. As a result, we feel less sympathy when Othello, overcome with jealousy and grief, kills his innocent bride, than when Iago is caught literally red-handed in deception.
Much of the time, Branagh plays Iago for laughs, giving his lines a snippy spin. This Iago seems less a bitter man, jealous of Othello’s professional and sexual magnetism, than he does a gleeful scamp who sees an opportunity to screw up people’s lives and finds that notion irresistible.
Tackling a role mastered by actors as diverse as Paul Robeson and Laurence Olivier, Fishburne, so sexy in contemporary parts, is surprisingly straitlaced. He’s romantic but not lusty, failing to convey a pure pleasure in Desdemona that would make her imagined betrayal seem so crushing. But Fishburne’s voice and bearing are suitably robust, he holds forth with Shakespearean fluidity, and he knows how to throw a bloody tantrum. His Othello turns Venice into a gangsta’s paradise. B+