7 September 2001 | Movie-12
One of the better retellings of Shakespeare to date. ***1/2 (out of four)
O / (2001) ***1/2 (out of four)
After the disastrous attempts the last decade has made at updating Shakespeare, I eventually thought that it was nearly impossible to successfully modernize anything of the genre. Shakespeare's themes and ideas can still relate with many aspects of society today, but seldom do filmmakers incorporate modern culture with the timeless stories told so long ago. "O" is like a slap in the face that proves my theory wrong. Based on Shakespeare's play "Othello," this isn't the first time Hollywood has tried to translate the tragic masterpiece onto film. In 1995, Laurence Fishburne starred in Oliver Parker's unsuccessful adaptation of the play. This time around, director Tim Blake Nelson has finally completed a victorious version of the story.and it's takes the form of a high school drama.
The film takes place in an elite private school located in the American South. Mekhi Phifer ("I Still Know What You Did Last Summer") stars as the title character, named Odin James, the only African American student at the school. That doesn't interfere with his reputation or image, however, because he's the school's defining figure. Rewarded MVP by the school's basketball team, he's a virtual celebrity with the student body, the basketball coach (Martin Sheen), as well as his beautiful girlfriend, Desi Brable (Julia Stiles of "Save the Last Dance"), the daughter of the Dean of Palmetto Grove Academy (John Heard).
Hugo Goulding (Josh Hartnett of "Pearl Harbor"), the son of the basketball coach, is Odin's best friend. He's asked by his father to look out for Odin because of the straining pressures of Palmetto Grove Academy. Little does anyone know, however, Hugo is dangerously envious of Odin and the attention he receives. On the outside, Hugo is friendly to all of his basketball teammates, including Odin, but on the inside, he's concocting a bitterly evil plan that will render more than just the social status of his classmates.
This tale of treachery, jealousy, and mistrust will introduce a new audience to the genius of William Shakespeare and some of his most intriguing and intelligent characters. In this version, the film changes the original metaphor of war into that of high school sports. It's startling how the themes of the classic story translate so well to the lives of modern young people. The film thoroughly examine the emotions of its characters. Through jealousy, favoritism, trust, and envy, to popularity, conformity, and the extreme measure some will take to fulfill their feelings, "O" looks into the heart of darkness, not through a sadistic serial killer or demonic monster, but through one of the most dangerous figures of all, a friend with ulterior motives.
Working against an inconsistent editing style and an uneven soundtrack, the actors do an exceedingly well job with their difficult characters. Josh Hartnett delivers a performance that isn't excessive or physically violent, but instead internal and intelligent. He gives his character a face for the complex emotions. He doesn't seek satisfaction through random temper tantrums, but through developing a full scale plan. Julia Stiles projects a charming, passionate chemistry with her supporting characters. Mekhi Phifer also furnishes a strong, convincing image of Odin.
Perhaps "O" doesn't fully exceed it's potential. It doesn't develop such possible themes as racism or one-sidedness. While creating a strong message on keeping friends close, but enemies closer, the film fails to examine a handful of themes that would have made the powerful, tragic conclusion even more effective.
"O" was originally completed in 1998, but because of the recent violence in real life high schools, the studios were uncertain about it's content and rescheduled its release date numerous times. Maybe these actions say something about the movie's impact and how influential it may become. In that case, why wait to release "O" if the message is something today's teens need to witness, both to inform them on Shakespeare and to demonstrate the dangerous results of envy and jealousy.