User Reviews (16)

  • Peter J10 May 1999
    Excellent Performances
    This is the best film of a Shakespeare play that I have ever seen. (Throne of Blood is a great movie, but it's an adaptation, not really Shakespeare's Macbeth.) What makes the difference for me are the outstanding performances by the entire cast, not just Olivier. Maggie Smith's Desdemona is truly touching as a woman overwhelmed by fate. A young Derek Jacobi hits all the right notes as Michael Cassio: smart, loyal, eager to please, but a little immature. I haven't seen any other roles played by either Frank Finlay or Joyce Redman, but in any case, they're excellent here. I much prefer Olivier's Othello to his film role as Hamlet. That's because too many of Hamlet's lines were cut from that version. More text gives more characterization to Othello, and gives Olivier the chance to really fill the role, which he does beautifully. My only real complaint is that on the videotape, the widescreen picture is cropped too much. Everybody who is a fan of Shakespeare or any of the above mentioned actors should see this movie!
  • Doc-5713 June 1999
    A dark, brooding masterpiece.
    Olivier is truly awesome: I invite you to read his biography by Donald Spoto to see what went in to this characterization. Surely this is his best Shakespeare role, but must admit I wish he could have filmed Macbeth. Another especial comment on the direction--it couldn't have been easy to bring this from the stage to a video version, but I feel it came off beautifully. This was film Shakespeare at its best--until Branagh's Hamlet.
  • John Esche16 October 2004
    Still the best OTHELLO on film after 40 Years despite first rate competition
    Viewing this superb filmed stage production (as well and faithfully filmed as any stage production could be) many may question why a Shakespearian actor of Olivier's standing resisted playing The Moor of Venice as hard as he did. The reason is absolutely plain in his performance - Paul Robeson's world shattering Broadway performance on Broadway for the Theatre Guild in 1943 (tragically, never filmed, but recorded complete by Columbia Records).

    It was Robeson (the first major black actor to play the part in a major commercial production - 280 performances at the Shubert Theatre, where A CHORUS LINE would eventually set musical records) who changed how we look at Othello - previously usually played as the MOOR Shakespeare wrote (frequently played in blackface, but the key element was the Islamic roots in North Africa - see Orson Welles' 1952 film, documenting for virtually the only time on sound film the earlier tradition - Welles would not have made a credible black man), and critics in 1943 drew the distinction between a Moor and a "Black-a-Moor". After Robeson, it became nearly impossible to think of anyone but a black actor in the role. Either way, the tale of the perpetual outsider, cautioning against jealousy and spousal abuse AGES before they became popular "causes" rings remarkably true.

    Finally persuaded to add the Moor of Venice to his Shakespearian repertoire, and ultimately (he toured it all over Europe first) to his long list of distinguished Shakespearian films - after his brilliant HENRY V, it is probably his best - Olivier did everything in his power to honor, even copy, the Robeson performance.

    YES, Frank Findlay runs away with the piece as Iago, and Maggie Smith's accent occasionally jars, but younger audiences will be astonished at the young "Professor McGonagall". This and THE HONEY POT may be her best films. It is remarkable Smith didn't have whiplash after playing over a hundred performances of the extremely physical bedroom scene. All told this all star cast still surpasses the excellent, frequently AS well acted but shorter, more "movie-movie" versions from Laurence Fishburne et al..

    Olivier is so good in this role which has been one of Fishburne's best, I'd love to see what Fishburne could do with HENRY V; I bet it would be great.
  • didi-515 July 2008
    stagy but very successful
    The National Theatre production of 'Othello' was legendary - one of Laurence Olivier's iconic roles from the era when white actors still blacked up to play the lead part.

    But is it really any good on the screen? It is essentially filmed theatre with an overpowering performance from Olivier, which is perhaps too large for viewing away from the stage - but it does benefit from three key parts of excellence in support (Frank Finlay as Iago, in Shakespeare's longest role as far as numbers of lines is concerned; Maggie Smith as a delicate Desdemona; and a very young Derek Jacobi as Cassio, resplendent in fine clothes and groomed hair).

    Trimmed slightly from the full play, it nevertheless keeps the main characters and the sense of the story, and plays at nearly two and a half hours. Tight direction, good diction, and - as far as filmed theatre can be - adequate sets give this Othello an edge which means it is still relevant today.
  • Colonel-2413 August 2001
    Good Shakespeare movie
    As this is a filmed stage production, some concessions must be made for the extravagant, loud, performances of some of the cast, although this over-acting does tend to get in the way. Laurence Olivier, as Othello, the moor of Venice, is extraordinary, and some moments in his performance are superb, but his constant habit of shouting at the top of his voice and throwing himself around the stage grates. His voice, made deeper by vocal training, will surprise those who are used to seeing Olivier in other films, where he does not play an Arab. Some of his better moments are his first appearance, his entrance into the brawl in which Cassio (an excellent Derek Jacobi) is banished, and, especaily, the moving final scene. Maggie Smith is an exemplary Desdemona, beleivably confused and upset. Joyce Redman is good, but also suffers Olivier's fate of overacting. Frank Finlay is an absolutely brilliant Iago, willingly talking to us, the audience, in his soliluquies, as though we were one of the characters, and taking malicious delight in his evil machinations. Overall, this is an impressive, though over-rated film. CAST RATING (out of 10) Laurence Oliver (6) Maggie Smith (9) Joyce Redman (6) Frank Finlay (10) Derek Jacobi (8)
  • jcpo29 September 2006
    DVD available in Canada in PAL format.
    Warning: Spoilers
    Olivier's performance is astounding. He runs the gamut from sweet and playful to bloody rage. Best of all is his spot-on clarity in conveying the seventeenth-century language. For this viewer, the Moorish makeup is honorable and character-appropriate. Throughout, one can see Othello's heroic disregard of the racist comments lobbed at him by the white Venitians.

    The DVD is completely remastered by Warners. Learmedia, an arts-oriented DVD vendor in Canada has a PAL standard DVD for sale. See my comment in the Message Boards here for more about the DVD.

    Some trivia: The Italian film director Franco Zeffirelli said of Olivier's stage version: "I was told that this was the last flourish of the romantic tradition of acting. It's nothing of the sort. It's an anthology of everything that has been discovered about acting in the last 3 centuries. It's grand and majestic, but it's also modern and realistic. I would call it a lesson for us all." John Steinbeck said that Olivier's performance on-stage was the greatest he had ever seen. Other critics, particularly Bosley Caruthers in the New York Times, trashed the performance as rubbish both on-stage and screen, accusing Olivier of making the noble Moor into a racist caricature. Sammy Davis Jr.' claimed that Olivier had come to see him perform multiple times and copied some of his mannerisms in his Othello. Olivier said that the play belongs to Iago, who could make the Moor look a credulous idiot. When Kenneth Tynan told Olivier that Orson Welles had described Othello as "a natural baritone", Olivier, a natural tenor, took voice lessons for several weeks. At the first read through, his voice was an octave lower than any one had heard it before. It was said that his vocal range was so immense that by a single new inflexion he could point the way to a whole new interpretation. Tynan wrote in his book "Profiles" (Nick Hern Books, 1989): "In the opening exchanges with Iago, Olivier displays the public mask of Othello: a Negro sophisticated enough to conform to the white myth about Negroes, pretending to be simple and not above rolling the eyes, but in fact concealing (like any other aristocrat) a highly developed sense of racial superiority... Olivier's was not a noble, 'civilised' Othello but a triumphant black despot, aflame with unadmitted self-regard. So far from letting Iago manipulate him, he seemed to manipulate Iago."
  • bkoganbing2 August 2007
    Iago Instead
    I've always felt Othello to be more Iago's play than Othello's. Iago is the guy whose subtle machinations keep the whole thing going. In fact William Shakespeare probably should have entitled the play Iago instead.

    Othello gets the title because the emphasis is on his reactions to Iago's hints of infidelity in regard to Othello's new wife Desdemona. The proud Moor is destroyed by the 'green eyed monster' who when he gets a hold doesn't let go.

    Why's all this happening? Because Othello, a Moorish soldier of fortune in the pay of the Duke of Venice passes Iago over for a promotion and gives it to another favorite named Cassio. All that sucking up gone for naught, Iago plans subtle revenge.

    But in order to make this work, it's more than Othello he has to maneuver. He drops lies and suspicions to Othello, Desdemona, Cassio, and even his own wife Emilia, to another suitor for Desdemona named Rodrigo, in short to just about the rest of the cast. It's why I think Iago's character is central.

    Nevertheless Othello earned for Laurence Olivier another nomination for Best Actor and for Maggie Smith as Desdemona, Best Actress. Frank Finlay as the subtle and clever Iago and Joyce Redman as his wife Emilia got nominations in the Supporting Actor categories. None of them came up a winner though.

    In one of his earliest screen performances you'll find Derek Jacobi as the loyal, brave, but slightly dense Cassio. And as Rodrigo who Iago plays like a piccolo is Robert Lang, both of whom are cast perfectly.

    Unlike Olivier's other Shakespearean work, this is essentially a photographed stage play. But the sets are just fine and since it's a story about palace intrigue, the palace sets are more than appropriate.

    I'd be hard pressed to say whether this or the Orson Welles version is better, judge for yourself.
  • TheLittleSongbird29 October 2011
    One of the finest Shakespeare films ever made
    I am very fond of Shakespeare's work so I was all for seeing Olivier's Othello having loved his Hamlet so much. There is some stiff competition, namely the brilliant Orson Welles film, but this doesn't overshadow or is in the shadow of this stiff competition, if anything it is on par with them. In short I honestly believe it is one of the finest Shakespeare adaptations and films. It is very well made, with exemplary photography and settings without ever feeling too stage bound. The music is haunting and evocative, the writing is outstanding(not only in terms of written quality but also how it is delivered and how well adapted it is), the characterisations have complexity especially Othello and the story still is compelling and moving. You couldn't have had a more perfect cast either, I think Laurence Olivier's Othello has more depth than his Hamlet, and to this day I still consider it one of his best performances on films, he is extraordinary. Maggie Smith is poignant, delicate and determined as Desdemona, and a young Derek Jacobi is excellent as Cassio. Frank Finlay's Iago is clever, conniving and altogether brilliant, for me the best of the supporting turns. In conclusion, fantastic really. 10/10 Bethany Cox
  • Nozz1 January 2000
    It's a filmed play
    Olivier got a lot of flack at the time for the Al Jolson performance, from people who failed to take into account the exaggeration of gesture and make-up that goes with a stage production. That's all it is, a film of a stage production, but visually the stage design is good and the photography presents it excellently.
  • warlock6 May 2003
    Amazing acting misunderstood by many today.
    This is a filmed play. Second, his interpretation is a valid one and I didnt know there was a rule that actors could not play characters of different races. That kind of reverse racism is exactly what is to be avoided. Judge the acting for acting's sake. Olivier uses a full octave voice lower for the performance, unatural to his usual tenor voice. If one simply judges the acting, it should be seen as a powerful piece of work. Another performance of this is by Anthony Hopkins, also quite excellent, with different shadings.
  • Joe_Denham3 September 2015
    Best Movie Version of Othello
    This is easily the best version of Othello I've seen (although I haven't seen the Orson Wells version yet).

    Laurence Olivier was nominated for Best Actor for his role as Othello, and deservedly so. I was mesmerized by his performance, he was truly one of the greatest actors of all time.

    All of the cast performed very well: Frank Finlay as Iago, Joyce Redman as Emilia, Maggie Smith as Desdemona, and in his very first movie role, Derek Jacobi as Cassio.

    The direction was flawless - attentive care was put into the timing of conversations and events. The costumes were very good too - I far more enjoy watching Shakespeare set in it's original and appropriate time in history.
  • jfarms195610 April 2013
    Laurence Olivier does it again
    This version of Othello would be best enjoyed by the over 20 crowd. I think that teenagers would have some problems understanding Shakespearian English. Laurence Olivier is masterful in this film. This version of Othello should also give good credit for the performance of Frank Finlay as Iago. Maggie Smith also portrays a good Desdemona. The words are crisp and powerful. The scenes and performances are commanding. It is amazing at how well Laurence Olivier performs in Othello, yet to no surprise since he is a consummate Shakespearean actor. He alone makes the movie, even if all else were to fail (which it doesn't). Othello is a timeless classic. No matter what, this film should be seen by all who enjoy Shakespeare. I give it six thumbs up.
  • joe-pearce-127 December 2016
    Necessary Correctives to Other Intelligent Commentary
    We are told not to use these reviews to find fault with other reviewers, but so much is amiss in so many of the other reviews to be read here that I find it absolutely necessary to comment upon them. Still, first of all, let's just say outright that this is a glorious adaptation of a great play, and my 9 rating would be a 10 if it had been made as a true movie instead of simply a filmed play. As such, it is still glorious, but think of what Olivier might have done with it if given the resources he worked with in HENRY V.

    First of all, Othello IS a black man. He is not simply a Moor, or a brown fellow, but black, and Othello and others say this many times in the play. As for Olivier's make-up, it is NOT black face (which is a pejorative term rightly associated with minstrelsy) but simply coloring to make the actor look like the character he is playing. I would go so far as to say that in my somewhat limited experience with white actors playing black roles - pretty much limited to OTHELLO, actually - but we may want to throw some Indians (red or brown, take your choice) or Hispanic roles in there, Olivier's is the most perfect visual realization of a black man I have ever seen by a white man. If you were to look at any photograph of him in the role without the actor being identified as Laurence Olivier, you would not doubt for a minute that a black actor was playing this part. It is rather astoundingly good make-up.

    Let's also dismiss this nonsense about Olivier paying any kind of homage to Paul Robeson in this role or, for that matter, that black actors didn't play this role before Robeson came along. They certainly did, at least as far back as in the late 1820s. Also, although Robeson was a quite successful Othello, he was not a greatly lauded one at the time, but only in retrospect, mainly because although he had been gifted with one of the greatest natural singing and speaking voices of his time and was a good actor, he was not a great actor and pretty much supported both his singing and acting interpretations by relying on the glory of that natural voice (Richard Burton was kept from being a truly great actor later on due to that same reliance on voice rather than interpretation - call it 'technique', if you must). For confirmation listen to Robeson's 1943 recorded performance, where he is somewhat overwhelming in terms of pure sound, but where Uta Hagen and Jose Ferrer are displaying most of the true acting chops required. Whether Olivier ever saw Robeson in the role is open to question, but he certainly didn't see him in it during its 280 Broadway performances, because Olivier was in Britain's armed forces during all of that period. The voice he puts on, which is certainly more of a bass than a baritone one, was one of the great shocks of my life when I first heard it - how could the always-tenor-toned Olivier get down there with Robeson, Welles and Ezio Pinza(!), but he did. Also, there was a very noted black actor successfully playing Othello at the time, one whose natural voice was just about as deep as Robeson's (or Olivier's put on) voice, and that was William Marshall (Blacula, unfortunately, to later generations), who may actually have been a better actor than Robeson or Welles (Orson was a very great director, but only a very good actor).

    Olivier had not played Othello before the 1960s because he was smitten with the role of Iago, which he did play to Ralph Richardson's Othello in the late 1940s. (The story was that Olivier introduced a not-too-subtle homoerotic theme into Iago's hatred of Othello, but they never made Richardson aware of it, and it went right over his head. Ralph was very straitlaced as well as very straight!)

    There may have been some criticisms of Olivier's Othello, but most of the criticism I remember of it at the time was overwhelmingly laudatory, so much so that the original English production got a quite huge article written about it in LIFE magazine at the time, and Olivier pretty much walked away with that year's entire London theatrical season.

    As for only black actors doing Othello now, that is pretty much true, but unfortunate, because any actor should be able to play any of the great roles which his talent will allow for, and for which audiences are willing to pay to see. At the Met Opera, their recent production of Verdi's OTELLO dictated that the tenor playing the role eschew black make-up entirely, so that the black character, referred to so often as black in the opera, too, and part of whose baggage regarding his falling so easily for Iago's treacherous insinuations about Desdemona is that very blackness - his outsider status as both a black man and a non-Venetian (which should explain Olivier's 'strange' accent in the movie) making Iago's job easy. Result? We got to see Otello as a white and pasty-faced Russian! It was ridiculous, but no more so than denying the stage role to non-blacks. Maybe only Jews should play Shylock and only Danes attempt Hamlet, but who the hell is racially or ethnically 'correct' for Caliban?

    Anyway, despite what others have written, and what I have here responded to, no one in his or her right mind should deny themselves the chance to see such great acting as is on display here.
  • GusF17 May 2015
    One that loved not wisely but too well
    Warning: Spoilers
    A wonderful tale of revenge, betrayal, jealousy and racism seen through the eyes of Othello, Iago, Desdemona and Cassio, the film is based on a National Theatre production of the play. As it was made on a small budget, it is essentially a filmed stage play rather than the film adaptation of a play but that didn't bother me as the performances are brilliant - particularly those of Laurence Olivier and Frank Finlay - and Stuart Burge was a sufficiently talented director to make good use of the limited resources at his disposal.

    Iago is one of the most fascinating Shakespearean characters that I have yet come across. An amoral and remorseless manipulator, he is able to deceive everyone with ease into thinking that he is a good and decent man. This is illustrated by the fact that all of the other character frequently praise him for his honesty and integrity, both in his presence and otherwise. He despises Othello for promoting Cassio over him and plots to destroy him by convincing him that his new bride Desdemona is having an affair with Cassio. In a scheme worthy of Machiavelli himself, he subtly moves the pieces into place without tipping his hand, presenting himself as nothing more than a concerned bystander. Frank Finlay is excellent in the complicated role, delivering an extremely subtle performance. He never makes the mistake of going over the top and playing Iago in an obvious, cartoonishly villainous fashion. You can really believe why people would take Iago at his word as he seems trustworthy. Finlay also completely avoids overacting when Iago outlines his evil plans in his numerous soliloquies. One of the major reasons why I thought that Olivier's version of "Richard III" was a lesser adaptation was that he committed all of the mistakes that Finlay avoids here. Finlay was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his role of Iago but, based on his screen time and the fact that he had the most lines, he would have really been nominated for Best Actor as Olivier was.

    In what would obviously be unacceptable by today's standards, Olivier plays Othello in blackface as well as deepening his voice and putting on a strange accent. The use of blackface made me uncomfortable and it would have probably been better if they had not overdone the makeup. However, it is a testament to Olivier's great skill as an actor that he is never less than completely engrossing as the title character, particularly in the scenes in which he displays hysterical anger. Othello is another extremely interesting character. His race makes him an outsider in Venetian society and yet it also makes him an object of fascination to people, as his demonstrated by Othello's claim that Brabantio has often questioned him on his life and Brabantio's comment that these tales have won his daughter Desdemona for Othello as well. He has succeeded as a black man in a racist society and as such he is the subject of scorn, being referred as "the Moor" in the play considerably more often than by his name or title. Iago uses numerous racial epithets to describe him and I am certain that his race is another reason why he wanted to destroy him. The play may have been written more than 400 years ago and it's still very timely in that sense, I'm afraid. However, Othello is not a particularly good man. He is extremely quick to anger and feelings of jealousy, both of which Iago uses to his advantage, and fails to give Desdemona the opportunity to defend herself from Iago's lies. After he kills her, he describes himself as "one that loved not wisely but too well" in an attempt to justify the murder but I can't say that I buy it. Othello is a tragic hero but he is more of a compelling character than a sympathetic one.

    In one of her first major roles, Maggie Smith is extremely good as Desdemona, the "sweetest innocent that e'er did lift up eye," and crucially has great chemistry with Olivier. She is a more complex character than she appears at first glance. I do not think that she is as submissive as she comes across as she shows her steely resolve when she stands up to her father Brabantio in the first act. With her dying breath, she takes responsibility for her death rather than using the opportunity to implicate Othello. This could be seen as the ultimate act of submissiveness but I interpreted as an act of love as she was able to forgive him in spite of everything. In his first film appearance, the 27-year-old Derek Jacobi is excellent as Cassio, playing the important supporting role with a great level of skill for such a young man. By then, he had already cultivated that great voice of his. There are not too many actors of that age, which happens to be mine incidentally, working today whom I think would be able to handle as well as he does. For her role as Iago's unfortunate wife Emilia, Joyce Redman was deservedly nominated for Best Supporting Actress and her best work is seen in the character's extreme anger and distress after she discovers that Othello has killed Desdemona. Out of the rest of the cast, Anthony Nicholls as Brabantio and Edward Hardwicke as Montano particularly stand out. As Roderico and Bianca respectively, Robert Lang and Sheila Reid are probably the weakest links but in the sense of being least good as opposed to awful. Like Jacobi, Michael Gambon made his film debut here but, unlike Jacobi, he was relegated to a "blink and you'll miss it" appearance in the background.

    Overall, this is an excellent version of one of the most absorbing of Shakespeare's tragedies.
  • eyesour10 December 2011
    Othello's occupation's gone. Ten stars.
    Warning: Spoilers
    Anyone who knows anything about Shakespeare's tragedies, or who even thinks about them for him/herself, knows that Othello is not about jealousy. Nor, in spite of what Olivier is supposed to have said, is it about Iago. The definition of a tragedy is of a man, or woman these days, successful, talented and gifted beyond others, who is brought down by a fatal inner flaw. This cannot apply to Iago, who is simply a machiavellian villain from start to finish, viciously revengeful for having been passed over. He can hardly be said to have been brought down by some unsuspected inner flaw.

    This play is the Tragedy of Othello, and his fatal flaw is his own self-aggrandisement and self-glorification. He sees himself as the noblest of military commanders in the "big wars", a great leader and inspirer of other men, above and beyond the common herd. Betrayal and treachery to someone with this self-image is unthinkable: the disloyalty of his subordinate will drive him to insanity just as much as suspicion of his wife's fidelity. That he takes his distress out upon the most vulnerable makes his humiliation unbearable.

    In one sense, his "race", so-called, is not a fundamental issue, although his colour racks his mind with an added intensity. As one or two of the more intelligent reviewers have noted, an actor is allowed to "act" any theatrical role he/she wishes, black, white or purple. I've actually seen a perfectly ridiculous Richard III with an all-female cast. Such tinkering is wholly pointless, of course, but I suppose they felt they were saying something. It added nothing at all to the play itself.

    Shakespeare's plays are exactly that: they are plays. The words are everything. The delivery of these words is all that ultimately matters. The scenery, and the rest of the business, is not really a priority, and should never excessively obtrude, or become "cinematic".

    If someone truly wants to know what Shakespeare's Othello is about, they should watch and listen closely to Olivier's delivery. They will then come away with enriched understanding. His performance, and that of all the other players, is matchless. It is incomprehensible to me how anyone could be less than transfixed throughout.
  • iamyuno214 March 2014
    A Great Performance By Olivier
    While the direction and cinematography weighs this movie down and keeps me from giving it 9 stars, Laurence Olivier's performance is so phenomenal it raises the film above mediocrity and makes it one that absolutely has to be seen - especially for those who aren't yet convinced of Olivier's greatness. What an incredible job he does here! And those who only know Maggie Smith in her more recent years, as the comic genius she is, need to see her as the ravishing beauty she portrays here. This is who she was - a great serious and seriously beautiful actress, in her youth. (Frank Finlay is also brilliant as the evil Iago.) A great story of jealousy and evil human schemes also makes this a tale that needs to be known. (And who but Shakespeare could best bring this sort of thing out, with such realism and devastating effect.) Bravo!!!