It’s probably best to think of O as a teen melodrama inspired by Shakespeare’s Othello — much as we view West Side Story as a riff on Romeo and Juliet — and not as a re-interpretation. To me, if you’re not speaking Shakespeare’s language, you’re not really doing the play. Shakespeare has been transmogrified so many times, though, that it seems senseless to object to a teen movie that uses Othello‘s basic narrative spine (nobody complained very much about Ten Things I Hate About You, which borrowed The Taming of the Shrew).
Those who love Othello probably won’t tolerate O, directed by Tim Blake Nelson and written by Brad Kaaya. Those who don’t feel one way or the other about the play or who don’t care for it — I myself consider it probably the most mechanistic tragedy of Shakespeare’s peak period — should settle in for a cleanly directed, passionately acted film about a prep-school basketball star, his supportive girlfriend, his duplicitous teammate, and a telltale handkerchief. As a modern-dress Othello riff, too, it beats the hell out of the Richard Gere-Andy Garcia cop thriller Internal Affairs (forgot about that one, didn’t you?).
Odin Jones (Mekhi Phifer), the star hoop playa in question, is beloved and respected by everyone — so beloved, in fact, that even a drug dealer hesitates to sell to him. The one notable exception, naturally, is Hugo (Josh Hartnett), Odin’s teammate, who gets overlooked (unlike Iago) not once but twice — Hugo’s own dad (Martin Sheen) is the team’s coach, who publicly says he loves Odin like his own son, and Odin shares his MVP award with another player, Michael (Andrew Keegan), the movie’s Cassio. So Hugo conspires to make Odin believe that the fair Desi (Julia Stiles), Odin’s true love, is making the beast with two backs with someone else’s back.
Tim Blake Nelson is an actor himself (you may have seen him in O Brother, Where Art Thou? playing back-up hick for George Clooney and John Turturro), and he’s a fine actor’s director, drawing out long, quiet scenes in which his cast can both relax and coil up. I particularly liked an early bed scene between Odin and Desi, both shirtless but chastely cloaked from the camera, as they tease one another; Phifer and Stiles build an erotic rhythm out of nothing but a few shared jokes. You may believe in their love moreso than you’ve believed it between Othello and Desdemona in most previous Othello films. Nelson also actually gets a performance out of Josh Hartnett, whose pinched poutiness for once works for him as the resentful Hugo. No longer acting out of “motiveless malignity,” Hugo isn’t the baffling evil puppetmaster Iago was, but Hartnett underplays his hand and keeps steady.
Nelson gets a little fancy at times, with repeated “O” visual motifs and recurring images of hawks and doves, but then he’ll also pull out a great set-up like an extended, quiet discussion between Hugo and his father, filmed in one long take from outside a window, in which Hugo is the only one visible. And Julia Stiles, completing her neo-Shakespeare trilogy (after Ten Things I Hate About You and Hamlet), continues to be well worth watching. A natural, laid-back actress, she makes her lines sound like a bemused shrug, so when she’s moved to anger — here, a small, amazing outburst when Odin brings his suspicions to her — it counts for something. Like most everyone else in the film (even Martin Sheen turns the volume down when necessary), Stiles comes up under the story rather than going over the top, which has been a mistake in some renditions of Othello. The movie is classy and dead serious, but it may not meet with the approval of either Shakespeare die-hards or teen audiences. For the rest of us, though, it works.