In recent years, a number of filmmakers have recontextualized the works of William Shakespeare to more modern settings, in an attempt to make the Bard's work more accessible to contemporary audiences. Successful attempts include "Romeo + Juliet", in which director Laz Buhrmann transplanted the star-crossed lovers into the middle of gang-war-infested Verona Beach, and "Richard III", which made good use of a fascist post-First World War England as the setting. On the other hand, there have been a number of such updates that have not fared so well, such as Kenneth Branaugh's unsuccessful bid to turn "Love's Labors Lost" into a Thirties musical, or last year's slow and dull "Hamlet", in which Ethan Hawke pondered 'to be or not to be' in the 'Action' movie aisle of a Manhattan Blockbuster store. Fortunately, the latest neo-Shakespearean production, "O", belongs to the former rather than the latter. Skillfully reinventing "Othello" on the basketball court of a modern-day prep school, the only tragedy in "O" is that this powerful film fell into limbo for two years in the aftermath of the Columbine incident.
For anyone who has studied "Othello" in school, the plot mechanics of "O" will be very familiar. The tragic hero is Odin James (Mekhi Phifer of "Shaft"), the only black student in the exclusive Palmetto Grove prep school. However, instead of being ostracized, he is worshipped as the star player of the school's basketball team. The love of his life is Desi (Julia Stiles of "Save the Last Dance"), who also happens to be the dean's daughter, and the coach of the basketball team (Martin Sheen of "The West Wing") considers Odin to be like 'his own son'. Unfortunately, this does not go over well with the coach's son, Hugo (Josh Hartnett of "Pearl Harbor"), who resents the affection garnered by his teammate. Spurred by jealousy and assisted by Desi's former boyfriend (Elden Henson of "She's All That"), Hugo orchestrates Odin's downfall by convincing him that Desi has been sleeping with another student (Andrew Keegan, who starred in "10 Things I Hate About You", which was essentially "Taming of the Shrew" set in a high school). Thus begins Odin's downward spiral of jealous rage, which ultimately ends in tragedy.
Production of "O" was completed in 1998 and was originally scheduled for release the following year. Unfortunately, with the Columbine shootings and the subsequent public scrutiny into Hollywood's role in fueling teen violence, Miramax Films decided to shelve "O" altogether. It was only after Lions Gate took the film off Miramax's hands that "O" finally saw the light of day in 2001. In retrospect, it seems that Miramax's decision was an unnecessary and unwise knee-jerk reaction. Though the film does end with a school shooting (which makes sense, given how "Othello" has a equally-tragic ending), the on-screen violence is not meant to be exploitative. Instead, it is a testament to the intoxicating combination of pride and jealousy, serving as a cautionary tale to audiences of all ages-a message that has endured since "Othello" was staged four centuries ago. In addition, director Tim Blake Nelson (who recently appeared in "O Brother Where Art Thou?") heightens this point by adding an additional layer of subtlety in the film's examination of the ills that arise in a culture of conformity.
For up-and-coming Stiles, this makes her third turn in a modernized version of Shakespeare, having been in "10 Things I Hate About You" and "Hamlet". Interestingly enough, though this film was shot in 1998, Stiles shows more versatility and range than many of her more recent roles. Phifer exudes charisma as the story's tortured protagonist, which effectively heightens the poignancy of his character's downfall. Finally, as the villainous Hugo, Hartnett makes an incredibly engaging performance that puts his recent "Pearl Harbor" stint to shame.
The beauty of films such as "Romeo + Juliet" and "Shakespeare in Love" is that they enhance the audience's appreciation of the source material, making the Bard's work accessible to those who may have otherwise thought them only suitable for scholarly pursuits. Such is the case of "O", a modern re-telling of "Othello". Though the dialogue has been updated from the Old English text, the story and characterizations remain true to the Bard's original intentions, both of which still hold much relevancy to today's world.