Movie Review: The Merchant of Venice
FILM REVIEW: THE MERCHANT OF VENICE
By Sid Smith
Chicago Tribune Arts Critic
William Shakespeare's "The Merchant of Venice" is often labeled one of his problem plays, a comedy with a dark, serious side and thoughtful layers of sociological analysis.
For modern audiences, despite its beautiful poetry, compelling characters and perceptive take on revenge, "Merchant" also poses a problem of another sort. The tale and undoing of the Jewish villain Shylock strike the modern viewer as anti-Semitic, and indeed the story involves outright anti-Semitic language and plot lines. As part of his punishment, Shylock is forced to turn Christian.
To his credit, director Michael Radford attacks this controversial aspect of the play head-on in his new film adaptation, the first full-blown cinematic treatment of this redoubtable stage classic. (Earlier versions were all silent or made for TV.) Radford provides a modern-day prologue that sets the stage by detailing - and clearly condemning - widely held anti-Semitic views of Shakespeare's Elizabethan time. He puts the play's attitudes in context and probes its ethnic complexities. Shylock, after all, seeks murderous revenge ultimately not due to stereotypical greed, but because the Christians in the story not only berate him but steal away his daughter, Jessica - a major part of Radford's emotional focus.
And great artist that he was, Shakespeare himself, despite the prejudices of his time, created in Shylock a complicated, deeply three-dimensional Jew, a sinner in some ways but also someone deeply sinned against.
Rather than set the work in modern times or the 19th century, a frequent stage ploy nowadays, Radford wisely sets it in the Renaissance of Shakespeare's day and stages the play's exteriors throughout Venice, providing atmospheric shots of a dark, evocative ancient world, one surrounded by brackish, smoky canals. The setting itself evokes the drama's moral morass.
In the story, the merchant Antonio promises to repay the moneylender by a certain date or forfeit "a pound of flesh," which, we learn gradually, Shylock means to be Antonio's heart. As Shylock, Al Pacino brings a star power that no doubt helped get the project financed. He's not a subtle classical stylist. But Radford slyly uses him to great effect, filming him frequently in lonely, forlorn silence and letting him deliver his famous soliloquy against ethnic prejudice - "If you prick us, do we not bleed?" - at full volume, almost as a sustained, angry outburst. Delicate and poetic it isn't, but loud, indignant fury is a mode Pacino can handle. Radford also offers plentiful imagery of Shylock's isolated, ghetto-restricted world.
Elsewhere, the casting is impeccable, notably Jeremy Irons as Antonio, who borrows the money to help finance his young friend Bassanio's courtship of a wealthy maiden, Portia. Irons is the quintessential Shakespearean film actor, eloquent and understated, and he and Radford saucily manage to hint, just slightly, at the widely held modern interpretation that Antonio's kindness stems from repressed gay desire.
Lynn Collins, whose courtroom soliloquy on mercy is one of the Bard's most famous and beautiful speeches, is a full-bodied Portia, adding vulnerability and girlish uncertainty to a character always richly wise beyond her years. She and Radford's approach also brilliantly survive one of Shakespeare's trickier stage feats: She masquerades in the courtroom scene as a young man. (In Shakespeare's day, female parts were played by young boys.) Often hokey, here the cross-dressing is surprisingly believable and effective.
Joseph Fiennes, way underused as Bassanio, is nevertheless more than adequate, a star player breezing through a minor part. Radford's greatest crime is in one questionable cut. Clearly in an effort to keep the movie short, he downsizes the subplot involving Shylock's daughter, Jessica, and her suitor, Lorenzo. Alas, this entails trimming their gorgeous "on such a night as this" dialogue near the end of the play, saluting all starlit romance - one of the more beloved and seductive colloquies in all of Shakespeare. But that foible notwithstanding, an important, timeless and sometimes troublesome classic has been filmed successfully and at long last.
"The Merchant of Venice"
Directed by Michael Radford; screenplay by Radford, from William Shakespeare's drama; photographed by Benoit Delhomme; edited by Lucia Zucchetti; music by Jocelyn Pook; production design by Bruno Rubeo; produced by Cary Brokaw, Barry Navidi, Jason Piette and Michael Lionello Cowen. A Sony Pictures Classics release; opens Friday, Jan. 21. Running time: 2:11. MPAA rating: R (some nudity).
Shylock - Al Pacino
Antonio - Jeremy Irons
Portia - Lynn Collins
Bassanio - Joseph Fiennes