October 2nd, 2004

Welles' Othello

Welles' Othello- made on the hoof over three years, with a hotch-potch cast and insufficient technical back-up- is a home movie of genius. The visuals are wonderful- big skies and jagged asymetrical compositions- but the soundtrack is bafflingly bad. This is Shakespeare- that is to say, well worth hearing- but you have to strain to pick up on what people are saying as they scurry about in the middle distance with shadows on their faces. What I've got is the "restored" version but the voices, even though they been passed through computers to the tune of a million dollars, are still far away and blurry and out of synch.

And then there's the acting. Welles liked to work with friends and because they were friends and they were all having such fun together he didn't feel able to crack the whip when they were crap. Welles himself is fine, but he stands by himself- one man surrounded by stiffs in funny hats and horsehair wigs. The worst of the stiffs is Michael MacLiammoir's Iago, who flutes and thesps like it's the 1890s and whose body-language is so stage-villainous that it's hard to believe that anyone would ever have believed his lies.

Othello is a two hander. If either of the two principals is inadequate it's not going to work. Welles' tolerance of MacLiammoir's uselessness wrecks the film. No amount of glorious cinematography is going to make up for the hole at its centre. Welles' big speeches are compelling, the murder of Desdemona is an expressionist tour de force, but...but...but...but...but.

Welles was an amateur. He made films for the love of it and walked away when he was bored. His back catalogue is littered with unfinished and badly-finished projects. Othello isn't as mangled as some of his work, but it's still strictly one for the aficianados. If you already love Welles you'll overlook the shortcomings and your heart will go boom-diddy-boom at the bravura touches, but if you don't you'll switch off early- probably, as I was tempted to do, within the first five minutes.

Between The Acts

I have just finished Between The Acts. It seems to have been overlooked- not counted among Woolf's masterpieces or popular successes- but I am a particular friend to the overlooked and I think it shines.

It's an easier text than Mrs Dalloway or the Waves; Woolf has simplified her style. She thought of it as "a complete whole"- the most perfect distillation and expression of her imagined world. It is a happy book, full of comedy and beauty and charm. It musters all the loveliness it can against the horrors of war and madness.

Four months after completing it Woolf went under for the last time and walked out of the house and killed herself.