The Story of 'O'

Othello goes to prep school in the latest Shakespeare update.

Like all the classic authors, Shakespeare essentially wrote R-rated material. Sure, he's not as racy as Milton, or as offensive to American sensibilities as Plato, but unexpurgated productions of his works are not going to be appearing on Disney's Happy Family Heterosexual Good Time Show anytime soon.

On top of that, Shakespeare has two more strikes against him for modern American audiences: He wrote some seriously downbeat stuff, and his language is essentially indecipherable to the majority of moviegoers. Nonetheless, the last few years have seen a slew of updated Shakespeare films. Oddly, they all star Julia Stiles.

First, she appeared in the clever teen film Ten Things I Hate About You, based on the Bard's Taming of the Shrew. Then, she showed up in the egregious Ethan Hawke vehicle Hamlet, based on Two Gentleman of Verona. Or maybe it was based on Hamlet. I'm not clear on this. Now, she makes her latest turn as a high-school Desdemona in O, which is short for Othello, or maybe O God, Would Someone Please Distribute This Film.

See, O is set in a modern-day boarding school, and, what with all the killing and mating that goes on in Shakespeare plays, it was considered a little too risqué to be released to the innocent American public in the aftermath of the Columbine killings.

So, for three years it bounced around Hollywood looking for someone courageous enough to release it, until the aptly named Lion's Gate finally decided to give it a go.

And frankly, let's thank them. While the script is devoid of Bill S.'s acrobatic wordplay, the story is pure Shakespeare. Odin James (Mekhi Phifer) is the star basketball player for the Hawks. In what will turn out to be the worst mistake of his short, talented life, he chooses to share his MVP award with center Mike Casio (Andrew Keegan) instead of point guard Hugo Goulding (Josh Hartnett).

Hugo is the stand-in for Shakespeare's Iago, and as those who are familiar with the original play know, he's the real star of Othello. Iago/Hugo is all about evil, and, giving the lie to contemporary Republican election strategies, Hugo proves that evil is not fun.

Still, he can't stop himself from attempting to destroy Odin/Othello, and he sets out to break him up from his girlfriend, hook him on drugs and frame him for murder. Why? Because Shakespeare was just that cool!

Since this plot is so over the top, it requires excellent acting and careful direction for it to work. O basically succeeds here. For a guy whose cheekbones could cut glass, Hartnett is surprisingly good as Hugo. It would be easy to play the part as a soulless monster, but Hartnett throws in a lot of pathos without going for bathos.

Stiles is entirely passable as Desi, the Desdemona character, though she really doesn't have a terribly challenging role. Phifer acquits himself reasonably well as Odin, though he's much better at appearing angry than sad, and he falters a bit when asked to cry.

The real breakout performance is by the underutilized Rain Phoenix, who plays Emily, girlfriend of Hugo. She's drawn into his manipulations because she desperately wants him to love her, and she gets to express a constant, resentful longing that gives her performance a compelling intensity.

Martin Sheen is the perfect complement to the younger cast. He plays a basketball coach whose nickname is "Duke" (get it?). As Hugo's father, he makes a great basketball coach. In fact, he's more likely to call Odin "son" than he is to give Hugo any kind of affirmation, all of which fuels Hugo's calmly insane jealousy.

Without being manipulative, the music accents Hugo's inner world. His scenes are played out against slow piano and cello pieces, whereas the basketball scenes are performed over a rap soundtrack. Selections from Verdi's Otello round out the soundtrack, which is eclectic without being cute or kitschy.

The dialogue also does a good job of catching contemporary inflections without going too far into teen slang. Where Shakespeare's Othello says "This hand is moist, milady ... this argues fruitfulness and liberal hearts," O's Odin James says "You'd never give out no love behind my back, would you?" Sure, it's not quite as pretty, but it gets the point across.

The cinematography, on the other hand, is consistently and exquisitely pretty. There are scenes of forbidden amour between teens that are so beautiful you'll almost forget that they're illegal, and the basketball sequences are shot with a broad eye that accents the action without losing the intensity of the actors' performances.

On the whole, O is a successful update of the play that features one of Shakespeare's best-drawn characters, Iago. While not perfect, it does bode well for future work by director Tim Blake Nelson.