Tim Blake Nelson’s ‘O’ (2001)

01Jan07

This statement evokes feelings of shallowness, but considering the cast of this movie the quality of the film surprised me. Josh Hartnett, Mekhi Phifer, and Julia Stiles all give top-notch performances in this modern adaptation of Shakespeare’s Othello. I believe that I was 17 or so when I first saw Josh Hartnett in Pearl Harbor and I thought he was so cute and so boring. His performance in The Virgin Suicides was a little more compelling, but the role was small and he was basically playing Cute Boy, not a very demanding role. As Hugo, Hartnett displays more range than those two previous performances combined. He could have played Hugo as a manipulative egotist and nothing more, but Hartnett brings an unexpected vulnerability and humanity to the character, which makes Hugo equally despicable and pitiable. I first encountered Julia Stiles in 10 Things I Hate About You, which remains one of my favorite guilty-pleasure movies, and she is terrific as the rebellious, flinty Kat. She failed to sparkle in subsequent films such as Mona Lisa Smile and The Bourne Identity, but her performance as Desi in O renews my belief in her acting talent. Stiles plays Desi with a beautiful trusting openness but gives her enough backbone at the right moments. Mekhi Phifer steps away from his brash, egotistical persona of Dr. Pratt on ER, bringing charm and vulnerability to the character of Odin.

I found the script a surprisingly good adaptation that distills the essence of Shakespeare’s tragedy and successfully transplants the plot into a high school setting, crafting an exploration of the origins of school-age violence. Being conscious of its source material, I recognize the intricate weaving of the plotlines and lucky coincidences as pure Shakespeare. But Brad Kaaya’s script and Kate Sanford’s tight editing ratchets up the dramatic tension slowly, involving the viewer so completely that she forgets to dwindle on the contrivances.

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