O (2001), Tim Blake Nelson’s sensitive and intelligent updating of Othello, drops the pathological envy, racism, fear, and jealousy that drive Shakespeare’s play into the hormonally heightened world of modern teenagers in a private boarding school.
Soldier Othello becomes basketball hero Odin (Mekhi Phifer), the only African-American in the student body, pushed over the edge in a cruel campaign of doubt. Desdemona is Desi (the smart and sure Julia Stiles), the Dean’s self-possessed daughter, and Iago is Odin’s envious teammate Hugo (a chilling Josh Hartnett), who plots their downfalls.
While the script initially gets tangled in its own complications, it’s an inspired and affecting revision that remains true to the original while taking on a harrowing life of its own. These kids act like real people struggling with a fragile sense of self and a need for acceptance and their story, while true to Shakespeare’s original, takes on a harrowing life of its own.
Mekhi Phifer is a charismatic Odin, a thoughtful urban kid pushed over the edge in a cruel campaign of doubt. In the one of the drama’s most terrifying and compelling moments, Hugo pushes him into becoming the worst nightmare stereotype of a black urban thug these white kids have ever seen, as if feeding on the crowd’s secret suspicions and turning it around on them.
Julia Stiles is marvelous as Desi, strong and sensitive and heartbreaking, and Josh Harnett plays Hugo with a well of repressed hate and a driving need for his father’s affection. He’s never sympathetic as he preys upon the immaturity and fragile self-esteem of his classmates but the pain in his eyes reminds us that he’s still a kid, a human being driven by the hurt in his soul.
The runaway emotions and spiral of uncontrolled violence of the film’s astounding climax shows a sensitive and vivid response to the tangled issues of teen violence, race, and self-esteem.
Martin Sheen, Rain Phoenix, Elden Henson, and John Heard costar.
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O (Two-Disc Special Edition) [DVD]
On Blu-ray and DVD. The two disc special edition DVD features commentary by director Tim Blake Nelson on disc one, and a separate disc of supplements including deleted scenes (with optional commentary by director Tim Blake Nelson), analysis of the basketball scenes with commentary by Nelson and cinematographer Russell Lee Fine, interviews with Julia Stiles, Mekhi Phifer, Josh Harnett and Nelson, deleted scenes, and the complete silent 1922 version of Othello (starring Emil Jannings and Werner Krauss). This expressionist adaptation of the Shakespeare tragedy directed by Dimitri Buchowetzki, with striking sets and larger than life performances, comes from the National Film Museum and features a newly re-mastered score.