Tim Blake Nelson
(Lions Gate, 2001)
Shakespeare is timeless. His plays have been interpretted in many different ways and have been transported to many different time periods. But I still can be surprised at how well Shakespeare can be translated to modern times.
O takes the nugget of Othello and reinvents it on a high school basketball court. What's surprising is how well it actually works there.
The movie finished production in 1999 but, following the tragic shootings at Columbine High School, was deemed unsuitable for release by Miramax. Fortunately, Lions Gate stepped up to ensure the film saw light after a two-year delay.
"O" is short for Odin James (Mekhi Phifer), the only black student at Palmetto Grove Academy, an elite private school. He is the star player on the basketball team, the coach's darling and the true love of the dean's daughter, Desi Brable (Julia Stiles).
Enter Hugo Goulding (Josh Hartnett), the team's starting forward and the coach's son. Hugo is jealous of Odin's popularity, an envy that grows into deep-rooted bitterness. And he starts to plot a way to tear him down by causing a rift between Odin and Desi.
The story unfolds largely as you'd expect, adhering closely to Shakespeare's design except for a few twists at the end. The adaptation, by Brad Kaaya, using modern language and a mix of ancient choral and modern rap music, is brilliantly done.
Admirable, too, are the performances by the film's key players. Phifer is intense, brooding and furious, Hartnett is devious and subtle, while Stiles is delightful in her adoration, devastating in her betrayal. A strong supporting cast keeps the action flowing.
Othello is a heartbreaking story of a powerful love destroyed. O keeps the story fresh for a modern audience.
[ by Tom Knapp ]