O
dir. Tim Blake Nelson
Opens Fri Aug 31 at the Varsity, Pacific Place, others.

When I interviewed O director Tim Blake Nelson at the film festival, he admitted that he was as skeptical as you are about making a movie that updates the characters, themes, and story of Othello to a contemporary teenage context.

"I didn't wake up one morning and say, 'I want to make another high school adaptation of a Shakespeare play,'" Nelson explained. "It took me a month to read the script. But when I finally did, I thought, here's an opportunity to present a tragedy in a high school, where people die, with guns, which, obviously, is something that really happens. I thought it could be a curiously grave film that could have a constructive impact and--I don't want to get too grandiose--be part of a national dialogue about high-school violence. That was when I decided it was something I wanted to be a part of."

That something turns out to be a pretty compelling piece of work. In transposing Othello's story of jealousy, manipulation, and violence to a high-school world--substituting South Carolina for Cyprus, basketball for war, and good old teen displacement for racial hatred--Nelson captures the timeless accuracy of Shakespeare's insights. Now that the principals are teenagers, the psychology of the power struggle becomes all the more transparent, and the fallout every bit as tragic.

"I love that there's no motivating force," the director said. "This is right from Shakespeare. The play simply seems to be saying that there is evil in us--in this case manifested in the acts of an envious individual--which is inscrutable. Try to describe it, try to get it to describe itself... you can't. It is lethal. That you can take a Shakespearean tragedy and set it credibly in a modern high school is extraordinary. Look at that. Let's talk about how the forces that were motivating adults in a Shakespearean text are in this country, right now, motivating teenagers, who are then acting on them the way the adults did back then. Extraordinary."

Support The Stranger