THE CRITICS : A modest Moor, with much to be modest about

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LIKE ITS hero, Oliver Parker's Othello (12) starts mightily - resplendent and captivating - before crumpling under the weight of misguided choices and self-delusion. In its opening scenes, Parker's truncated tragedy promises to be both cinematic and modern. Gondolas bob shimmeringly on a glossy Venetian lagoon. Lolling in one, Othello (Laurence Fishburne) raises a tragic mask to his face, foreshadowing his fate. We are pitched straight into the cinematic flow. And where Orson Welles opened his Othello (1951) on the Moor's funeral cortege (an image of death), and Sergei Youtkevich in his classic 1955 version started with Othello in his pomp (life), Parker cuts straight to Irene Jacob's Desdemona (fleeting womanhood). A fresh and arresting choice, which, for the first act or two, the film lives up to. But then the actors take over. And in this Othello, the green-eyed monster is not jealousy but casting.

At first glance, the combination of Fishburne and Kenneth Branagh as his tormentor, Iago, is a powerful one. Fishburne brings an unwieldy emotional directness to the noble Moor: he is a believable warrior and an imposing if naive lover. The fact that Fishburne is less schooled in Shakespeare than Branagh is a boon. Fishburne's Othello is a simple man, brooding and self-absorbed, with a considered formality ("rude in my speech") of expression. So he is, in more ways than one, no match for Branagh's Iago, whose personality is consumed by histrionics. Fishburne is best in the early scenes, when a sort of gentle pride shines through (as in his delivery of the speech recounting his adventures with the Anthropophagi). Later that same self-effacement diminishes the tragedy.

Iago, as so often, is the star turn, but Branagh eschews the traditional oily insinuation for a straighter, harder sort of evil. There is a steeliness to his pique from the outset. He dwells resentfully on his perceived lowly status, talking of "the curse of service" - seeming to spit out that final word. When he shouts to awaken Brabantio from across the lagoon, it is a frightening revelation of an iron indifference to manners, to the conventions of society. Branagh, in recent interviews, has exuded an acerbic resignation (perhaps due to the hammering he took over his direction of Mary Shelley's Frank- enstein). Here he seems to have tapped a secret bitterness in his soul.

What motivates this Iago to destroy Othello? Certainly class envy plays a part. Though Branagh doesn't overstress this, his clean delivery occasionally has a blokeish tinge of cockney to it. Sexual envy may also be involved. At one point, Iago and Roderigo (Michael Maloney) confer under a cart in which a couple are noisily making love. For a second, Branagh looks up towards them, wearing the leer of an impotent outsider. Yet the strength of Branagh's interpretation is that it does not explain or simplify Iago's malignity; it leaves something unfathomable in it. His reading of the line, "Oh beware, my lord, of jealousy...", is stunning, because it comes out of nowhere, not a part of an act, but a piece of advice that seems to be as spontaneous and sincere to giver as to receiver.

This Othello is the baby of its director and adaptor, Oliver Parker. Unlike Welles, who used explicit Freudianism and film-noir imagery of entrapment, Parker does not impose a meaning or look on the play. Instead, he wants to recast its dramatic virtues cinematically: to create an erotic thriller - Fatal Attraction plus pentameters. He is best at doing the simple things: conveying Othello's physical dominance over Iago in a scene when Fishburne rides on horseback while the dumpy Branagh trails in his wake. Parker has been pilloried for importing a sex scene into Shakespeare. But the text reeks of sex, and the brief scene gets across the sexuality lurking in Desdemona's awe at her husband. Only in the latter part of the play, when he sets too many scenes out of doors (Fishburne throws away the "Farewell, the tranquil mind" speech on a cliff top), sacrificing the claustrophobia, does Parker lose his touch.

Both Jacob and Fishburne have received unfair abuse for their stabs at unfamiliar roles. Each is competent - and Jacob's French accent is no more intrusive than Suzanne Cloutier's in Welles's version. The trouble comes when they have together to provide the emotional climax. Fishburne dithers between histrionic rhetoric and psychological realism, more drooping than rousing; while Jacob rushes headlong at speeches whose pathos often eludes her. With Branagh off-screen, there is no crag of competence for the audience to hang on to. And Parker's direction is at its most theatrical in the murder of Desdemona - a close-up of her hand becoming limp as Othello strangles her - just when it needed to be most cinematic. The film ends up an honourable failure, having promised to be a great deal more.

What game starts to the din of drums, involves the participants risking life and limb, and can take an interminable time to complete? Nice try, but no, not a Test match against the West Indies. The answer is Jumanji (PG), an antique board game stumbled upon by a small boy in a New Hampshire town in 1969 and not finished until the present day. By which time he has battled a bestiary of creatures and grown up into Robin Williams (it's hard to know which is more frightening). The young Alan Parrish had rowed with his father that evening in 1969, resistant to his pa's cynical plans to send him off to boarding school. But the game represents a far more arduous destiny.

By now you may be expecting, with a certain amount of dread, a special- effects movie (strange the way repetition renders them unspecial). But the joy of Jumanji is in how sparingly director Joe Johnston deploys his arsenal of computers, making the tricks and shocks the more real. Long passages of chat and scheming pass between Williams and his accomplices (a pair of children and an adult), before, at the whim of the dice, the game throws some fresh horror out into the world: a herd of elephants thundering through the town; a Victorian explorer blasting away with his blunderbuss; a flood sweeping away a door and the policeman knocking on it. Don't ask me about the rules. They seem to involve a lot of doggerel: "At night, they fly, you better run/ These aged things are not much fun!" Not exactly Ted Hughes, but better than your average game of Cluedo.

Jumanji has its faults - chiefly an over-neat and over-long final tying- together of all the different plot threads - but it's a good deal smarter and saner than your average kids' blockbuster. Genuinely inventive and miraculously restrained, it's infinitely preferable to the stultifying prettiness of last week's acclaimed children's offering, A Little Princess.

The art film returns with a vengeance in Theo Angelopoulos's Ulysses' Gaze (PG), a moody, somnambulant, intermittently ravishing epic that wanders across Europe, along with its maundering hero (Harvey Keitel). Keitel plays a film director, known in true Kafkaesque fashion solely as "A", who is searching for the three reels of the first film shot in the Balkans (in 1905). Ulysses' Gaze draws on the legend of Odysseus, but it mixes (or rather, muddles) in other quest myths, such as Jason and the Argonauts. The pace is stately, bordering on funereal, and Keitel's hollow performance makes his coast through Clockers look as animated as his work in The Piano. At the London Film Festival screening I went to, Angelopoulos claimed that Keitel had boned up on the part obsessively; never has research paid so little dividend. Along with the broad geographical sweep - Greece, Albania, Macedonia, Germany, Sarajevo - the timescale spans, through flashbacks, the 1940s and the present day. Many of the images have a searing melancholy beauty, but they can also seem hackneyed. Likewise, the ideas underpinning Angelopoulos's gargantuan enterprise - of the universality of alienation and the impos- sibility of pure art - are commonplace.

In Bed of Roses (PG), a florist (Christian Slater) sees a woman (Mary Stuart Masterson) weeping in a window one evening and falls in love with her. She still bears the wounds of an orphaned childhood; he too has learnt that life is thorny. A good, even beautiful, premise, but this romance is stronger on ambience than development.

Cinema details: Review, page 68.

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