This is a BBC film directed by Jonathan Miller, with Anthony Hopkins as Othello, Bob Hoskins as Iago, Penelope Wilton as Desdemona, Rosemary Leach as Emilia, and so on.
The interesting thing about watching multiple Shakespeare productions is to see how differently directors and actors may approach the same text, and the BBC one is very different from the one by Trevor Nunn. I have said that Ian McKellen is to me the ultimate Iago, as he’s just like the Iago I had in my head whilst reading Shakespeare’s play: he is soft-spoken and adopts a self-effacing persona; in front of others, he always cleans up or fixes people’s clothes, listens attentively and sympathetically, and appears trustworthy; alone, he is cold and calculating, consumed with inexplicable hatred for Othello.
Bob Hoskins is a very different Iago, and it also works very well: in front of others, he has a matey persona, friendly and familiar with everyone; alone, he is always smiling and chuckling to himself, he looks unhinged. The way he chuckles and mimics the trumpet, unmoved by the pain he has caused Desdemona, the way he laughs after he gets Cassio and Roderigo to fight and potentially kill each other, and especially the way he chuckles at the end, having seen the work he’s done, is terrifying. Bob Hoskins’s Iago is a sociopath.
As Iago, Bob Hoskins is matey, but not loud and pushy like Gordon S. Miller in the Stratford Festival production. That Iago is a terrible failure and, in my opinion, destroys the entire production. Ian McKellen and Bob Hoskins have demonstrated that there are different ways of playing Iago, but what they have in common is that they both are subtle, slowly poisoning Othello’s mind and feeding him lies without making him suspicious. Gordon S. Miller is too aggressive and pushy.
Penelope Wilton is all right as Desdemona, but I think the character is meant to be younger, almost like a child. Imogen Stubbs is perfect in the role—she has the innocence, the naïveté, and the childlike quality of Desdemona.
David Yelland as Cassio is very different from Sean Baker in the Trevor Nunn production: Sean Baker plays the character as a ladies’ man, who does have a thing for Desdemona; David Yelland’s Cassio doesn’t do anything remotely inappropriate with Desdemona.
But what about Othello? you ask. Anthony Hopkins, again, has a very different approach, compared to Willard White. He plays the role in a more naturalistic, less theatrical way. The interpretations are also very different: Willard White’s Othello is not easily moved, and at the beginning doesn’t seem to care much about Iago’s insinuations but is slowly poisoned by him; whereas Anthony Hopkins’s Othello is already insecure, and doesn’t have much nobility and grandeur. Readers may have different ways of looking at Shakespeare’s character: he may be seen as a noble character who falls from great heights, because of a man’s manipulation, and it is so tragic because of how far he has fallen through the course of the play; or he may be seen as a good general but an empty, insecure man in private life, who isn’t worthy of Desdemona.
Some people might not like the lack of grandeur—Anthony Hopkins’s Othello becomes smaller and hollower—but his performance works well and the play doesn’t become any less tragic because of it. In a way, perhaps it works even better: the insecurities are already in him and Iago only has to lead him towards the wrong direction, but Iago also transforms him from a calm, steady, and respectable general at the beginning of the play into a beast—for Anthony Hopkins’s Othello does turn into a beast.
Placing side by side the 2 productions, I think both are excellent, both Iagos are brilliant, and the Trevor Nunn one has a perfect Desdemona and a more interesting Cassio, but overall I may lean a bit towards the BBC one by Jonathan Miller. Firstly, it focuses on Othello whereas the other one seems to tilt towards Iago—much as I love Ian McKellen, Shakespeare’s play is about Othello.
More importantly, as I wrote in the other blog post, the killing scene in the Trevor Nunn production doesn’t really work. The scene in Shakespeare’s text becomes more and more intense, and when it gets to the peak, Othello smothers Desdemona—there must not be any lingering, any pause, or any interruption. The lingering in the Trevor Nunn production ruins the scene and almost destroys the tragedy, if not for the following scene with Emilia. Anthony Hopkins’s Othello kills Desdemona at the peak of hysteria.
The BBC film also handles the final scene better: Zoë Wanamaker is also good, but Rosemary Leach is brilliant and more effective as Emilia. In the Trevor Nunn production, perhaps because of Willard White’s mannered, theatrical delivery, the final moments after Othello has learnt the truth feel a bit too long, but in the BBC one, the last moments don’t seem at all to drag when the number of lines is exactly the same.
But then in the Trevor Nunn film, Ian McKellen’s face, as he says “What you know, you know”, is striking and unforgettable. Good as Bob Hoskins is in the role of Iago, his delivery of the same line wouldn’t stay with me like Ian McKellen’s does.
What do you think? Which is your favourite Othello production?