O: Tim Blake Nelson’s Version of Othello

With the Bard quickly becoming the most adapted playwright in American cinema, in both period and modern settings, it was only a matter of time before his powerhouse drama, Othello, became a contemporary tale of interracial love, jealousy, and treachery, set in high school.

Long on the shelf, Tim Blake Nelson’s O is well-directed and decently acted, but it suffers from a flawed narrative that, while generally faithful to Shakespeare’s tragedy, tries to do too much, carrying the characters and their emotions to unreasonable and unconvincing extremes.

Reportedly, Miramax, which last years scored with its modern rendition of Hamlet, handed the film to Lions Gate, fearing a controversy as a result of parallels drawn between the Bard’s text and real violence in American schools. There’s no reason to worry: O is so unrelentlessly downbeat and so problematic in its text and characterizations, that it’s doubtful many patrons will see the movie beyond a small coterie of indies’ lovers in urban centers.

Kaaya’s version is set in an elite private school, in the Deep South, where NBA hopeful Odin (Phifer) is the only black student. Excelling as the point guard, Odin possesses the talent, stamina, and ambition to go straight from high school to the pros, a fact recognized by coach Goulding (Sheen), who treats him like a favorite son. It doesn’t help that Odin is dating Desi (Stiles), the bright, beautiful daughter of the Academy’s dean (Heard)–and object of desire of most boys in school.

Except for the glaring fact that Odin is the only black (male or female) in school, first act builds and sustains all the tensions in the Bard’s tragedy, specifically the envy that Odin and Desi generate among their friends with their relationship, based on love, trust, and respect. In this rendition, the nefarious Iago becomes Hugo (Hartnett), coach Goulding’s son who seems to have no problem scheming and controlling all his classmates to achieve his goal.

It’s in the characterization of Hugo, simplistically played by heartthrob Hartness, and his clique of friends that the movie goes seriously wrong. The bitterly envious Hugo has been asked by his father to look out for Odin, due to the numerous pressures facing him at the academy. But it’s never clear why would Hugo have such powers over his rich roommate Roger, who will do anything for him, nor is it credible that Michael (Keegan), Odin’s pal and peer at the basketball team, will be so easily manipulated by Hugo.

A number of potentially explosive racial and sexual issues are haphazardly handled. Hence, a steamy sexual scene between Odin and Desi begins with her willing submission but turns into a borderline rape. Then there’s the drug issue with Odin, which is also underdeveloped. Least credible are the use of the scarf, as an incriminating evidence, and practically all the female characters, especially Emily (Rain Phoenix), as Desi’s duplicitous roommate and Hugo’s girlfriend.

That said, Nelson, better known as an actor (O Brother, Where Art Thou) is a gifted director, attracted to dark but relevant material, evident in his 1997 feature debut, Eye of God, an underestimated film that few people saw. Deservedly winning Seattle Festival’s Best Director, Nelson is not only good with the actors, but effective in creating emotional and visual menace throughout the film. Nonetheless, he’s handicapped by a narrative that shows the limitations of transferring one of the world’s most adjustable playwrights into a modern locale.