Leave it to Hollywood to make a bold, challenging film for teens (and adults) only to let it collect dust on a shelf as proposed release dates were set, then scratched, many times over. Such was the sad and unfair case with Tim Blake Nelson’s “O,” which original distributor Miramax seemed ready to consign to direct-to-video oblivion after scuttling their final planned theatrical release date in April 2001–three years after the film’s production. Luckily for the film and audiences everywhere, Lions Gate came to the rescue of what is by far the most successful modern-dress adaptation of a William Shakespeare work–and the rare teen-targeted film to have something of real substance to say.
The “O” of the title is Odin James (Mekhi Phifer), the only black student in a ritzy South Carolina prep school. The star player of the basketball team, Odin has the respect and love of his peers, not to mention the team coach (Martin Sheen), who favors him over his own son, Hugo (Josh Hartnett). Bitter and jealous, Hugo sets out to destroy the too-trusting Odin by planting seeds of doubt about his girlfriend Desi’s (Julia Stiles) fidelity.
Placing the Bard’s “Othello” in a modern high school context was a most inspired idea on the part of director Nelson and screenwriter Brad Kaaya, for so many elements in the original play so seamlessly translate to the charged atmosphere and psychology of adolescence: the destructive rumors that are too easily taken for truth (in a way, “O” is the cautionary tale last year’s horrid “Gossip” wanted to be); the unspoken but ever-present prejudices; the selfish pride; and–perhaps most crucially–the melodramatic tendency to blow petty events and any resulting emotions into an out-of-proportion life-and-death matter. That last point in mind, the story’s inevitable leap to violence is all the more real–and hence more disturbing and deeply tragic.
The emotional intimacy and intensity of the piece owes a huge debt to the performers. The charismatic Phifer is a perfect match for the charming and (over)confident Odin; his natural likability makes his simmering jealousy and rage that much more upsetting. Before that happens, though, he forges a strong rapport with the radiant Stiles; their early scenes have a genuine tenderness that doesn’t come off as sticky. Delivering the breakthrough turn is Hartnett, who wisely eschews the urge to overplay; his rather quiet, understated turn adds to the menace of the character, not to mention it makes Odin’s misguided but unwavering faith in him easy to swallow.
Nelson, however, deserves most of the credit for making a Shakespeare play not only work but feel relevant in a contemporary context. A part of that success is definitely due to his and Kaaya’s decision to not retain the Shakespearean dialogue, which had such a distancing effect in Baz Luhrmann’s “Romeo + Juliet” and Michæl Almereyda’s Hamlet. It may not retain the Bard’s words, but “O” works better than those films due to a fidelity of a different kind: that to the spirit of original piece. There’s no blatant pandering to youth (as in “R+J”‘s quick-cut, MTV-ready eye candy) or contemporary audiences in general (Hamlet‘s aggressive push of modern settings and products, as in the infamous Blockbuster Video-set “To be or not to be” scene). “O” is as unflinchingly dark as its source material, and seeing the physically and emotionally violent story play out–with little strain in believabilty–in the here and now just makes it more unsettling.
Miramax failed to see the big picture with “O,” zeroing in its violent content without paying attention to context; as such, the film’s release was tabled countless times due to real-life instances of high school bloodshed. It’s quite a sad statement on the movie industry that between ’98 and now, a number of youth-targeted films–be them of the horror, action, or even comedy genres–that exploited violence as a means of stimulation have easily seen release while a film that seriously deals with the issue and its aftereffects has had to languish in limbo. “O” is the type of film that one should want to release in the aftermath of a high school shooting: a film where the acts of violence are shocking not because of graphic gore or sensationalism, but because one can profoundly feel the lives being destroyed.