Oliver Parker's

Modern drama tends to be tightly constructed, focusing on central, well-motivated characters whose lives are cleanly resolved by the final curtain. Shakespeare's plays, conversely, disperse into the worlds of secondary characters, with less of an emphasis on psychological motivation, so that his central plots appear as the unraveling of social knots in a continuous, relatively broad society.

Othello is one of Shakespeare's tighter plays, and Oliver Parker's movie of 1995 takes the next step, paring down the dialogue to a thoroughly modern rendering. The lines of secondary characters are minimized, and silent cinematic clips of Iago's machinations and Othello's imagination reveal the director's concern with motivation. Whereas this digs deeper into the characters' psychology, it slows the tempo of the dialogue, distancing the production from the fluency of Shakespeare's poetry.

Kenneth Branagh is a brilliant Iago, matter-of-factly addressing the camera on more than one occasion. In these moments, he comes across as the voice of fate, especially when contrasted with the amiable persona he exudes in public. Branagh's Iago abruptly transforms from giggling foreplay with Emilia to a cold declaration of his plot, from the urgent stabbing of Roderigo to a penetrating glare into the audience.

Laurence Fishburne is an intimidating Othello, Irene Jacob a rather passive Desdemona, and Nathaniel Parker a genuine, naively honest Cassio, but all three are clearly revolving around Branagh's performance. This is no doubt related to the production's concern with psychology, as Iago is the most complex character in Othello, but Kenneth Branagh's fluency in Shakespearean English has also placed him in a class of his own.

Three stars for Oliver Parker and the cast, and an ale at the Boar's Head Tavern for Kenneth Branagh, whose performance kept the music of Shakespeare in a production that was otherwise in danger of degenerating into the sensible and popular.

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