Making its debut on Blu-ray is O, the 2001 modern-day retelling of Shakespeare’s Othello. Originally slated for theatrical release in 1999, the film was postponed for two years—first due to the 1999 Columbine High School shootings in Colorado and again after the 2001 Santana High School shootings in California. Though Shakespeare’s tragedy involved adult characters, O centers on a group of high school students. The third act violence, orchestrated by one of three central characters, Hugo Goulding (Josh Hartnett), was deemed a little too close for comfort to those real-life incidents.
Hugo is the son of the high school basketball coach, Duke Goulding (Martin Sheen). Hugo is on the team, but he’s perpetually overshadowed by the Hawks’ stars, Odin James (Mekhi Phifer) and Michael Cassio (Andrew Keegan). Hugo feels that Coach Goulding is disproportionately proud of Odin, which somewhat understandably results in his seething anger and resentment. But Hugo takes things well beyond anything “understandable” by hatching a complex scheme to disgrace Odin. He apparently figures if he can’t earn his dad’s respect, he can at least destroy the apple of his eye.
Julia Stiles plays Odin’s girlfriend, Desi Brable, who also happens to be the daughter of the high school’s dean. Dean Brable (John Heard) already has mixed feelings toward Odin (it’s implied that he’s racist), but tips over into barely restrained hatred when he realizes Odin is engaged in a sexual relationship with Desi. Viewers with a comfortable familiarity with Othello’s plot will recognize Hugo’s machinations. Those completely new to the story might be surprised by the sociopathic pursuit he takes in order to ruin the lives of Odin and Michael. He manages to convince Odin that Desi is cheating on him with Michael. The two team stars, pitted against each other, are basically putty in Hugo’s hands once the seeds of suspicious distrust are planted.
O works reasonably well as a kind of dark soap opera. Unlike some other modern adaptations, such as Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet (1996), it does not retain any of the original play’s iambic pentameter. Every aspect of the story has been modernized. Both Phifer and Stiles are effective in their roles—likeable and sympathetic. But they’re also a little frustrating in their blatant ignorance of plain, old common sense. Hugo’s lies are so vicious—and so clearly unfounded—that it’s a little hard to swallow their obliviousness to the situation.
Hartnett does what he can as Hugo, though the filmmakers should have fleshed out his character a little bit. Hugo is simply despicable, whereas he should have also been at least a little sympathetic as well. The daddy issues just aren’t serious enough for us to relate to the extreme measures he takes in bringing down those around him. O aims for weighty tragedy, but ends up devolving into implausible melodrama that makes it ultimately difficult to recommend.
O is pretty solid looking on Echo Bridge’s Blu-ray. Clarity is very strong throughout, which is much appreciated during the action-oriented sequences (such as the basketball scenes). Though not an especially colorful film, the colors are vividly realistic. The only minor complaint is the presence of white and black specks that pop up with moderate frequency. The 5.1 DTS-HD audio handles the hip hop-dominated soundtrack well, with crisp high end and satisfyingly deep LFE activity. Dialogue, while clear, is sometimes a bit low in the mix when compared to music and effects. All things considered, O is more than acceptable for a budget-priced release.
Don’t expect much in the way of extra features on O. Lions Gate’s previous two-DVD release included a commentary by director Tim Blake Nelson, a couple of featurettes, and a restored version of the 1922 silent feature film Othello. All that carried over to this Blu-ray are ten minutes of deleted scenes (sans commentary, unlike the older DVD) and a seven-minute reel of interviews with actors Julia Stiles, Mekhi Phifer, Josh Hartnett, as well as Nelson. It would have been nice to have Nelson’s feature commentary, but at least a couple of the extras were included.