O (review)

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Is there a more appropriate place to transfer a Shakespearean tragedy than the viper pit of interpersonal politics known as the American high school? Screenwriter Brad Kaaya’s and director Tim Blake Nelson’s adaptation of the Bard’s Othello almost seems as if it was intended to be set in Charleston’s Palmetto Grove Academy. Passion, jealousy, anger, bitterness, sex, and love among the South’s children of privilege… all the seething drama of life is heightened and exacerbated by the raging hormones of adolescent, making this as potent and relevant a filmed production of Shakespeare as we’ve seen since, perhaps, Bas Luhrman’s vastly underappreciated Romeo + Juliet. O does not water down or sugarcoat Shakespeare’s horrific violence — horrific not because of a visual explicitness but because of the emotional depravity it represents. Hugo Goulding (Josh Hartnett: Pearl Harbor) lives in the shadow of Odin James (Mekhi Phifer: Shaft), star of Palmetto’s basketball team and the kid Hugo’s father, Coach Duke Goulding (Martin Sheen: Apocalypse Now Redux), loves “like [his] own son.” So, with chilling casualness, Hugo engineers Odin’s downfall, playing his own best friend, Michael Casio (Andrew Keegan), and Odin’s girl, Desi Brable (Julia Stiles: State and Main) with devious cunning, setting everyone around him on a course for tragedy. The teen cast turns in superb performances (ditto the adults), but this oft-delayed film is probably too relevant for its own good, hitting theaters in an era consumed with hysteria over the “epidemic” of school violence. Will a mass audience reject this cutting and powerful film because of that? They shouldn’t: Some adults clearly need reminding of how intolerable adolescence can be.

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