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Shakespeare High 

Tim Blake Nelson's O is a forthright and in many regards remarkable adaptation of Shakespeare's Othello with the action relocated from medieval Venice and Cyprus to the confines of an elite, contemporary boarding school. Because of its setting and violent content, the film was shamefully shelved by Miramax shortly after the murders at Columbine High School and is being released now with less fanfare than it deserves. The picture by no means works in every regard, but it provides much food for thought, particularly as it is compared with its source material.

The brainchild of screenwriter Brad Kaaya, O is the story of Odin James (Mekhi Phifer), a black basketball star at an otherwise all-white school. The main character's nickname "O" directly invokes Othello, of course, and his name otherwise works on various levels, Odin the Norse god of war, the character's initials O.J. signaling his fateful involvement with a doomed white girl.

In a scene that would have more successfully involved the selecting of team captain, Odin is voted most valuable player. During his acceptance speech, the star insists that a teammate share his award, a sophomore named Michael Casio (Andrew Keegan). Odin's decision to honor Michael proves particularly galling to another of the team's starters, Hugo Goulding (Josh Hartnett), who regards his own rebounding and playmaking as having contributed almost as much to the team's success as Odin's phenomenal scoring.

In significant part, Hugo's malicious envy of Odin stems from the relationship between the star and Hugo's father, Duke Goulding (Martin Sheen), who coaches the team. Duke is as enthralled by Odin's athleticism as any of the kids at the school; furthermore, Duke hopes that if Odin leads the team to a state championship, Duke may benefit by being offered a college coaching job. At the awards ceremony, Duke says that he loves Odin "like my own son," a claim Hugo regards as at once a betrayal and a lie. For Hugo is convinced that, in fact, Duke loves Odin considerably more than he loves his own son.

Hugo's malevolent response is to concoct a scheme to steal from Odin that which he loves even more perhaps than basketball stardom, namely Odin's relationship with the school beauty Desi Brable (notice how close that name is to desirable and not just Desdemona). To that end, Hugo leads Odin to believe that Desi is cheating on Odin with none other than Michael. And to an astonishing but not always successful degree, most of Shakespeare's conventions are employed to stoke the fires of Odin's jealousy. An overheard conversation is manipulated to be misunderstood, but this is a device far easier to accept in the stylized world of the stage than in the more naturalistic medium of film. Elsewhere, an heirloom handkerchief is pilfered and planted to suggest an act of perfidy that hasn't occurred. This plot development is executed adroitly without ever convincing us that modern teenagers would invest nearly so much import in a square of cloth.

Two centuries ago Samuel Coleridge worried that Shakespeare's construction of Iago suffered from a "motiveless malignity." This criticism isn't entirely accurate, for Iago complains bitterly about Othello's awarding Cassio a promotion Iago coveted. But one can see that writer Kaaya and director Nelson have striven to address this arguable deficiency in the original. There is a Duke in Othello, but he disappears after the early minutes of the play and never possesses a relationship with the villain. In contrast, Hugo's strained relationship with his father provides much of the motive that progenitor Iago lacks. Still, and because I have so long admired his work, I say this with considerable dismay: Martin Sheen makes an appalling mess of Duke. His performance is a one-note rant utterly devoid of either subtlety or complexity. Sheen's Duke is a crude stereotype of win-at-all-cost coach and never even momentarily a father with the normal pride of paternity.

Those familiar with the tragedy at Othello's climax know what lies in store for Odin and Desi. I will concede that I have never felt entirely comfortable with Shakespeare's end, but I find myself even less so in the modern context. Echoing Othello's claim that he "loved not wisely but too well," Odin similarly insists that his love for Desi was the strongest thing in his life. His concomitant insistence that he be judged for his crimes alone and not confused with or dismissed as a gang-banger or a drug addict effectively underscores the distinctiveness of his humanity.

But critics have long complained that Othello was manipulated too easily. In a world as cynical as ours, with kids as savvy, Odin stands out as an unconvincing dupe. Hugo, meanwhile, whatever his problems with Papa, would seem to have far too much going for him to stage-manage a campaign of cold-blooded murder. Odin and Hugo are the prep school insiders. At Columbine they were targets, not the predators.

click to enlarge Odin (Mekhi Phifer) puts the full-court press on Desi (Julia Stiles) in Tim Blake Nelson's O.
  • Odin (Mekhi Phifer) puts the full-court press on Desi (Julia Stiles) in Tim Blake Nelson's O.
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