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Image Entertainment presents
Othello (Royal Shakespeare Company) (1990)

"I'll pour this pestilence into his ear."
- Iago (Ian McKellen)

Review By: Mark Zimmer   
Published: November 18, 2004

Stars: Ian McKellen, Michael Grandage, Imogen Stubbs, Willard White, Sean Baker
Other Stars: Clive Swift, Brian Lawson, David Hounslow, John Burgess, Philip Sully, Zoe Wanamaker, Marsha Hunt
Director: Trevor Nunn

Manufacturer: Deluxe
MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (violence, thematic material)
Run Time: 03h:24m:57ss
Release Date: November 02, 2004
UPC: 014381262223
Genre: drama

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
B+ A+B-B- D-

DVD Review

Of all Shakespeare's tragedies, Othello is one of the most difficult to bring off for a variety of reasons. There are the racial issues of course, on the surface, that often make it awkward in modern society. There are also the questionable motivations of many of the characters, some of which seem a bit contrived to bring the title character into a murderous rage. And centrally, Iago, a thorough blackguard of a character who acts like a force of chaos determined to bring destruction upon everyone and everything around him, is one of the lengthiest and most difficult roles in all the plays of the Bard.

The central story is well known. The Moor Othello (Willard White) is in command of the forces of Venice against the Turkish enemy. Having married Desdemona (Imogen Stubbs), the white daughter of a Venetian noble, Othello is assigned to Cyprus and appoints Michael Cassio (Sean Baker) as his lieutenant. Iago (Sir Ian McKellen), slighted by this promotion, contrives to drive Othello mad with jealousy, creating situations that make it appear that the faithful Desdemona is cheating with Cassio. Meanwhile, Iago also conspires to arrange Cassio's disgrace and murder.

Iago is a seriously problematic character to realize. Although Shakespeare writes him as constantly evil and wicked, with hardly a redeeming characteristic, Othello and others also refer to him again and again as honest and virtuous. In order not to make them seem complete boobs, typically the interpretation of Iago requires a smooth slickness that gives credence to this opinion. But McKellen avoids subtlety, instead emphasizing Iago's wickedness almost to an exclusion of treating him as human. Although it's satisfying in the respect of letting out all the stops, he almost seems a caricature of the character, and yes, Othello does, as a result, seem like an idiot. One element of depth that McKellen provides Iago comes in an almost afterthought discussion of Iago's motives; perhaps he himself is infected with jealousy, believing that his own wife has betrayed him with Othello. McKellen gives this brief scene a surprising weight, which plainly suggests that this, rather than Iago's own statements throughout the play, is his true motivation.

Operatic bass Willard White makes for a physically imposing Othello, though in the first two acts he seems very stiff indeed. Once the fires of jealousy are stoked, however, he makes up for any lack of emoting by hurling himself into an outraged frenzy. Surprisingly, the transition works quite well. Imogen Stubbs is an appealing Desdemona, hardly able to believe her husband suspects her of infidelity until it is quite too late. Her palpable fear before his mania is powerful and increases the horror of the final act. Also noteworthy is Michael Grandage as Roderigo, a fop who seeks to win Desdemona for himself and thus willingly falls under Iago's spell. What often seems a ridiculous role is given a certain leavening of tragedy in the earnestness Grandage brings to the part.

For unknown reasons, director Trevor Nunn gives this drama of the Renaissance a modern setting; the costumes appear to be from the American Civil War for reasons even less obvious. Although it is a filmed stage play (essentially complete), there are plenty of cuts and varied points of view to keep up the visual interest.

Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: A+


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: This full-frame presentation was apparently shot on videotape, since it is significantly soft throughout. Much of the film is quite dark and shadow detail is almost entirely lacking. Color is hardly present at all, though that may well be a production design decision since the colorless appearance is consistent with the thematic material.

Image Transfer Grade: B-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access

Audio Transfer Review: The 2.0 mono track is a bit boomy at times, which doesn't help make the frequently rapid-fire delivery of dialogue any more comprehensible. In particular, the muttered asides and quiet conversations are problematic, a situation not helped by the absence of subtitles. Hiss is present but not a serious problem. The storm sequence in Act II has good presence and range.

Audio Transfer Grade: B-


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 16 cues and remote access
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extras Review: There are no extras of any kind. The disc is not RSDL, but dual layer, which allows a little bit more storage space for this lengthy program. Chapter stops are a mostly adequate one per scene. The aforementioned lack of subtitles is a definite detraction.

Extras Grade: D-


Final Comments

A reasonably good, if somewhat broad, reading of the immortal tale of jealousy. The transfer's a bit dark and there are zero extras.


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