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Magnificent Oliver performance graces Othello

Othello (1965)

Directed by Stuart Burge.

Starring Laurence Olivier (Othello), Maggie Smith (Desdemona), Frank Finlay (Iago).

LSC Classics Friday.

10-250, 6:30 p.m.

By Stephen Brophy
Staff Reporter

Before Kenneth Branagh, there was Laurence Olivier. Both were giants of their profession in their respective decades; both were married to equally successful movie stars (Vivien Leigh in Olivier's case); both felt a burning mission to bring Shakespeare to the masses in film form.

Olivier rose to prominence on the British stage and was considered in his time likely to be the greatest actor of this century. He became the director of the Royal Shakespeare Company at a relatively young age, and directed Henry V, his first filmed play, during World War II. Even though he had little filmmaking experience he managed to convey a complex vision, moving by almost imperceptible steps from the actual stage of a recreated Globe Theatre to a realistic battle scene on a real field and back again. He followed this up in 1948 with a classic presentation of Hamlet.

Olivier's Othello embodies magnificence. From his first entrance, through his madness with its volcanic shifts of mood, and in his final humility, he seems larger and more alive than anyone else on the screen. By contrast, Frank Finlay's Iago seems clipped and controlled, and Maggie Smith's Desdemona becomes a bit of delightful froth. Olivier's acting strategy is most effective when he shows the emotional results of the snares set by Iago - gestures that once were smooth become choppy and abrupt. He sputters and storms and jerks around like a helpless puppet. One element of his character does not work very well though: his makeup seems totally phony. Since Othello hails from Africa, Olivier feels a need to play him in blackface. He apes some of the mannerisms of a West Indian, and, insofar as he is successful, creates an insulting caricature. It's hard to separate the magnificence of his interpretation of one of Shakespeare's most complex characters from the offensiveness of his portrayal of a contemporary black man.

If you can get past this problem, there are good reasons to watch this movie. Although it is basically a filmed record of a play, it is full of naturalistic details and seems more true to life than Orson Welles's more stylized version. The economic underpinnings of the situation are more apparent than usual. You get a clear sense of the undercurrent of resistance to colonialism that is not often visible in other stagings of this play. And you can see a very young Derek Jacobi playing Cassio, one of his first movie roles.

For Branagh fans, LSC is screening his Much Ado About Nothing this Sunday. Also, looking ahead, Branagh is making a new version of Othello, in which he will play Iago to Lawrence Fishburne's Othello.