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Late Bloomer



*"O" (R)
Lions Gate Films

No other film adaptation of a Shakespeare play has met with so much resistance as director Tim Blake Nelson's rendering of Othello. "O" wrapped shooting just as the April 20, 1999 Columbine High School massacre occurred, and regardless of its merits as a well crafted adaptation with historic performances, the film would never have been released were it not for a legal battle against Miramax in New York Supreme Court. Set in an elite private school in South Carolina, the classic tragedy of jealousy and manipulation plays out among teammates on the school's highly competitive basketball team. The film has a compulsive leanness and purity that cradles blistering performances by Mekhi Phifer, Josh Hartnett and Martin Sheen. This is one of those rare movies that audiences will look back at for years to come to affirm the credible talents of the film's ensemble.

Early in the story Coach Duke Goulding (Martin Sheen) gives a rousing gymnasium speech in which he proclaims his high estimation of his star player Odin James (Mekhi Phifer in the Othello role). Goulding doesn't consider that he might affront his own son Hugo (Josh Hartnett in the Iago role), the starting forward on the team, or that his allegiance to the school's only black student might upset any faction within the school. Goulding is a generous and passionate man who leads by example and inspires everyone around him, except the renegade heart of his own son. Goulding's monologue resonates with Shakespearean rhythms, serving as a bold introduction before the script's modern conventional language takes over. Sheen's magnetism, as both coach and father, gives subtle layers of subtext to the origin of Hugo's diabolical intellect and to the unbearable jealousy that drives his cruel actions.

Odin plays the coveted point guard position on the basketball team and enjoys the consummated love of Desi Brable (Julia Stiles), daughter to the school's dean. With Hugo playing best friend to Odin, and entrusted by his father to be Odin's personal confidante, Hugo holds the cards essential to execute a scheme of treachery that will send death to visit more than one before the story ends.

Above Shakespeare's thickly woven plot, screenwriter Brad Kaaya captures acutely the chess moves that Hugo goes through to bring ruin on his rival and incidentally himself. But so much of the story is meted out through Phifer's and Hartnett's fierce eyes and facial expressions that it's easy to get caught up the guarded emotions that run hot and cold in these two resourceful actors. Tim Blake Nelson, most widely recognized as the goofy convict Delmar in O Brother, Where Art Thou? has a natural sense for the grit of tragedy. O is the closest I've seen a Shakespeare movie come to making you forget that it's Shakespeare, because the rhythm of the film and the arc of the story are voiced so thoroughly in cinema language. The third act of the movie accelerates the pulse of the drama and dictates the shallow breaths that the audience must take to endure the horror that explodes.

By now, Josh Hartnett (Pearl Harbor) and Julia Stiles (Save the Last Dance) are familiar to movie goers who wouldn't have thought twice about them when "O" was due to come out in 2000. Mekhi Phifer was all but forgotten since his break in Clockers, but is sure to get offers he never would have seen if "O" had stayed on a shelf. And yet there seems something terribly wrong about the troubled journey "O" has taken to get on a thousand screens across America. The unhinged morality tale that unfolded on TV screens around the Columbine shootings was never articulated with anything remotely close to the care and eloquence of Shakespeare's Othello.

"O" a is film of inestimable energy and passion, crafted by artists who deserve to be proud of their work before audiences who can appreciate it. Whether as an introduction to Shakespeare or as an example of the renewable timelessness of the Bard's plays, "O" fulfills the demands of modern cinema and unconventional theater with aplomb. It reminds us that life is fragile, short and coveted by some that believe their own rise depends on crushing others.

-- Cole Smithey

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