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'O' puts classic Shakespeare passions in teen-age hearts

Friday, August 31, 2001

By Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Movie Editor

Maybe all those generations of high-school students who shuddered at the very mention of Shakespeare would have developed more of an interest had they but known how much violence his plays contain.


RATING: R for violence, a scene of strong sexuality, language and drug use.

STARRING: Mekhi Phifer, Julia Stiles, Josh Hartnett.

DIRECTOR: Tim Blake Nelson.



That doesn't even take into account his cross-dressing characters, feuding gangs defending their turf, witchcraft and magic potions, teen-age suicide, extramarital sex, racial and religious prejudice and even cannibalism. Sounds like a typical week on "The Real World."

Or in the real world. The most earnest entry in a spate of youth-oriented Shakespeare movie adaptations, titled simply "O," was shot a few years ago but shelved after the Columbine High School shootings and subsequent incidents. In fact, they should have hastened the release of the film, which finally opens today and thoughtfully explores the pathology of envy, prejudice, bullying and youth violence.

It sets the story of "Othello" in a contemporary high school of sorts -- a private academy in South Carolina. Odin James (Mekhi Phifer) is the only black student and the star of the school's basketball team, coached by the intense Duke Goulding (Martin Sheen), whose son, Hugo (Josh Hartnett), also plays on the team.

Hugo craves the adulation that Odin receives. He hates being a supporting player. He resents Odin naming another teammate, Michael Casio (Andrew Keegan), as his co-MVP. And he detests the way his father treats Odin like an adopted son, lavishing his star with more attention than he gives his biological offspring.

So Hugo hatches a plan to destroy Odin through his romantic relationship with Desi Brable (Julia Stiles), the beautiful daughter of the school's dean. Hugo sets out to convince Odin that Desi is cheating on him with Michael. He uses his girlfriend, Emily (Rain Phoenix), as an unwitting ally, and a nerdy, unpopular classmate, Roger Rodriguez (Elden Henson), as his pawn.

Those familiar with "Othello" will recognize the plot, the cleverly renamed characters and the story's tragic outcome. What's missing, of course, is Shakespeare's language, which would be difficult to retain in a realistic contemporary setting. Still, is "Othello" the real thing without the Bard's sublime poetry?

Director Tim Blake Nelson (one of the Soggy Bottom Boys from "O Brother, Where Art Thou?"), working from a screenplay by Brad Kaaya, compensates by using Shakespeare's story to reference the youthful passions that sometimes build to a violent explosion.

Nelson works subtly, as do his actors, never pushing an issue in your face but making his point all the same. No one is openly racist toward Odin, but, when the stuff starts to hit the fan, some people question whether it would be happening if he were white (or, by inference, if his girlfriend weren't. When they make love, Nelson's camera concentrates primarily on the contrast of their skin). Roger gets roughed up so often that we can understand why he might seek revenge against his tormentors with Hugo's help, although in a more focused manner than the Columbine shooters.

As the film proceeds, Nelson keeps showing Hugo framed by doorways and windows, implying that he will be the ultimate victim of his own trap. But at film's end, his voiceover suggests that he will achieve what he sought from the start -- attention, if not exactly adulation.

"O" proves to be a clever transmutation that once again proves why Shakespeare remains the most contemporary writer of any age -- including adolescence.

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