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Review byMatthew Turner9/12/2002

Four out of Five stars
Running time: 95 mins

Shakespeare's Othello transposed to an American High School, starring Julia Stiles and Mekhi Phifer.

Impressive adaptation of Othello into teen drama - strong performances by the three leads and assured direction by Tim Blake Nelson.

Of the spate of classics-transposed-to-high-school movies that have been released over the last few years, some (Ten Things I Hate About You, Hamlet 2000, Clueless) have been much more successful than others (She's All That, Cruel Intentions, Crime and Punishment In Suburbia).

The same is equally true for Shakespeare adaptations. Luckily, O (Othello transposed to High School) is one of the successful ones, thanks to an intelligent script and great performances from its three stars.

Consumed By Jealousy

The action takes place in a school in Charleston, South Carolina, with the film's dialogue being similarly updated. Odin "O" James(Mekhi Phifer in the Othello role) is the school's star basketball player and is lionised by the school's basketball coach, played by Martin Sheen. However, Sheen's son Hugo (read: Iago), played by Josh Hartnett, is consumed with jealousy towards his classmate, so he starts a vicious rumour that O's girlfriend (Julia Stiles as 'Desi'/Desdemona) has been cheating on him. With predictably tragic results...

The performances are excellent. Phifer, in particular, manages to balance just the right amount of arrogance and vulnerability. Stiles is as gorgeous as ever and convincing in her role and Hartnett is equally impressive as Hugo, managing to humanise him rather than make him purely evil. (This may, in fact, be Hartnett's finest performance to date - here's hoping he does more films like this and less of the 40 Days and 40 Nights variety).

The one character that doesn't quite ring true is Hartnett's henchman, who does what he does because he believes that with O out of the way, he has a chance with Desi. Given that he's played by Elden Henson (the fat ginger kid from She's All That), this is somewhat unlikely, so perhaps it would have made more sense to either have him fancy Hartnett or be played by a more charismatic actor.

High Quality Scene Work

Actor-turned director Tim Blake Nelson (perhaps better known as Delmar in O Brother Where Art Thou) does an impressive job here, keeping tight control of the actors and maintaining an appropriate tone throughout. He also pulls off a number of really good scenes, especially the main basketball scene and the scene where O listens in on Hartnett's engineered conversation.

The release of O was apparently shelved because of Columbine and a similar previous incident. It's not hard to see why - anyone familiar with the play will know that it ends in a heap of corpses, and it's true that setting it in high school doesn't carry quite the same justification as if the characters were soldiers. However, the associations of high school violence lend the film a certain degree of topicality that only serves to complement Shakespeare's themes of jealousy and betrayal.

Ultimately this is definitely worth watching, thanks to the performances and Nelson's direction. A worthy addition to the 'classics-as-high-school movies' genre and an object lesson in How To Update Shakespeare. Highly recommended.

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Content updated: 21/11/2019 15:36

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