Othello (1965)

Othello (1965)

“Let us be conjunctive in our revenge against him.”

When evil Iago (Frank Finlay) finds out Cassio (Derek Jacobi) has been promoted ahead of him, he seeks revenge on his Moorish military commander, Othello (Laurence Olivier), by convincing him his wife Desdemona (Maggie Smith) has been having an affair with Cassio.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Cross-Cultural Romance
  • Homicidal Spouses
  • Jealousy
  • Laurence Olivier Films
  • Maggie Smith Films
  • Play Adaptation
  • Race Relations and Racism
  • Shakespeare

Stuart Burges’ faithful screen adaptation of the British National Theatre Company’s staging of Othello was the first cinematic version of this play to be filmed in color, and remains notable for featuring Olivier in a disturbing form of blackface.

Indeed, Olivier’s choice of characterization (he also lowered his voice, developed an accent, and shifted his walking gait) caused controversy that persists today; see here to read about a music professor who was censured for showing this film at the University of Michigan. Olivier’s appearance is shocking at first — but the larger problem is that his critically lauded performance (Peary nominates him as one of the Best Actors of the Year in Alternate Oscars) is far too overbearing. While Finlay nicely underplays, Olivier comes across as positively apoplectic and childish.

Faring much better is Smith as Desdemona, projecting just the right amount of love and loyalty injected with righteous confusion and fear.

Overall, the film suffers from being too much of a filmed play; regardless of what one thinks of the performances, the storyline remains as stagy as it was designed to be. In contrast, Orson Welles’ low-budget adaptation is a revelation of cinematic possibilities.

Watch for Derek Jacobi in his screen debut as Cassio.

Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • Maggie Smith as Desdemona
  • Frank Finlay as Iago
  • Geoffrey Unsworth’s cinematography

Must See?
No; this one is only must-see for Olivier fans or Shakespeare-on-film aficionados. Listed as a film with Historical Importance and a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.


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