FILMS

Pride and pestilence

Jealousy undoes one man; plague stalks another

Brian D. Johnson January 8 1996
FILMS

Pride and pestilence

Jealousy undoes one man; plague stalks another

Brian D. Johnson January 8 1996

Pride and pestilence

Jealousy undoes one man; plague stalks another

FILMS

OTHELLO Directed by Oliver Parker

The term "erotic thriller" is relatively new to the dramatic lexicon. As much a marketing label as anything else, it refers to a genre that includes

such movies as Body Heat, Basic Instinct, Jade—and now Othello. At least, that is how British director Oliver Parker has described his adaptation of Shakespeare’s tragedy. It is now an erotic thriller, which presumably makes it more appetizing to viewers who would prefer to be thrilled and eroticized than to be bummed out by a bunch of characters who meet a bad end. Popularizing Shakespeare, however, is a dicey business, no matter how noble the motive. And while there is much to admire in Parker’s Othello, something is missing.

The most efficient of Shakespeare’s tragedies, Othello is powered by two unreasonable obsessions: Iago’s malevolent desire to frame Desdemona for the crime of infidelity, and the blinding jealousy that allows Othello to believe that she has betrayed him. As lago, Shakespeare veteran Kenneth Branagh makes a brilliant impression. No one is as adept at lifting The Bard’s lines off the page and making them so accessible.

There is, however, a glib, crowd-pleasing quality to Branagh’s interpretation. His lago is a bad boy with an idle mind and a mischievous wit, but he does not seem especially evil. Iago’s motivation has always been problematic. Ostensibly, he is bitter about losing a promotion which Othello has unfairly

awarded to Cassio. But Iago’s extreme actions require a malignancy that Branagh never quite conveys.

As Othello, Laurence Fishburne is a proud and powerful presence, progressing through dimensions of nobility, sensuality and snarling rage. There is, however, a coldness to his performance, which makes it difficult to care

about his character’s fate.

There is also a formality to Fishburne’s delivery, which clashes with Branagh’s casual style. Instead of representing two sides of the same treacherous lust, they seem to be acting in different movies.

As for the romance between Othello and Desdemona, the film-makers make the most of it, with scenes of passionate kisses and flashes of nudity.

But French actress Irene

Jacob makes an unsatisfying Desdemona. She never seems comfortable with Shakespeare’s verse—unlike Anna Patrick, who is superb as Emilia, Iago’s wife and Desdemona’s lady-in-waiting.

The film-makers have tried to create a cinematic Othello, a vivid spectacle of lust and murder. And the movie is very watchable— to quote lago, “pleasure and action make the hours seem short.” But as the characters converge for the climactic bloodletting, the bald melodrama acquires a campy self-

consciousness that triggers unintended laughter in the audience. It then becomes apparent that—reduced to its most literal elements of eros and murder—the soul of Shakespeare’s tragedy has been betrayed.

12 MONKEYS

Directed by Terry Gilliam

Like Waterworld, it has a post-apocalyptic premise. The human race—or what is left of it—has been driven into exile. This time, the scourge is not flood, but pestilence. A lethal virus has eradicated 99 per cent of the planet’s population, and the survivors live underground, in a grave new world that is hermetically sealed against infection and ruled by an Orwellian regime. Above ground, only the animals have survived—lions, bears and bugs stalk the ruins of Philadelphia. Bruce Willis stars as Cole, a prison inmate who reluctantly volunteers to go on a time-travel mission back to 1996 in the hope of unravelling the mysterious origin of the virus. There, he tries to convince Kathryn (Madeleine Stowe), a psychiatrist specializing in mad prophets, that he is sane. And, obsessively tracking a terrorist enigma called The Army of the Twelve Monkeys, he encounters a deranged animal-rights activist (Brad Pitt) whose father (Christopher Plummer) is an oily but eminent virologist.

Talk about plot. With a story as intricate and airtight as the bubble-wrap space suit that allows Cole to visit the Earth’s surface, 12 Monkeys has a far more evolved intelligence than Waterworld. It combines the talents of two men who have set the standard for big-screen visions of dystopia: British director Terry Gilliam, who devised the surreal brilliance of Brazil (1985), and American screenwriter David Peoples, who scripted Blade Runner. There are echoes of both films in the Byzantine future envisioned by 12 Monkeys. But as a

movie, it measures up to neither of them.

The time-travel business sets up a mind-bending narrative loop—a Möbius strip between reality and dream. The story’s riddle, however, is answered with a rather banal resolution. When the crime is apocalypse, the villain needs to be more than an anonymous bad guy. As the good guy, Willis, is stolid and workmanlike, a science-fiction flip side of

the bloodied and beleaguered Die Hard underdog. As the shrink who risks her sanity by giving him the benefit of the doubt, Stowe has a purely reactive role. And Pitt plays conspicuously against type with a wild, twitchy performance as a mental patient. The Kafka -esque intrigue is certainly compelling. But the movie, so full of promise, feels unsatisfying in the end—a barrel of monkeys that comes up empty.

BRIAN D. JOHNSON