At the Rialto Bridge, a red-capped Shylock (Al Pacino) gives greeting to wealthy citizen Antonio (Jeremy Irons, "Being Julia"), who spits in his face in return. But when Bassanio (Joseph Fiennes, "Luther") needs money to woo the lovely Portia (Lynn Collins, "13 Going on 30") and turns to the cash-strapped Antonio, it is the usurer Shylock who will hold the upper hand over "The Merchant of Venice."
Writer/director Michael Radford ("Il Postino") tackles one of Shakespeare's most problematic plays with murky results. Setting an historical fact in opening subtitles, that in the 16th Century intolerance of the Jew was a way of life, even in the liberal-minded Seat of Venice, may prepare the audience for what many view as an anti-Semitic work, but it does not address the play's tonal disjointedness. Still, there are several good performances here and the Venice locations are a beautiful, if underlit, stage for them.
One half of "The Merchant of Venice" involves a fairy tale courtship, where the wealthy Portia is bound to her father's wish that only the suitor who picks the correct of three caskets, each of which bears a clue to its contents ('all that glistens is not gold' is the advice given one unlucky courter). In true Shakespeare fashion, the courtship is mirrored in Bassanio's friend Gratiano's (Kris Marshall, "Love Actually") pursuit of Portia's maid Nerissa (Heather Goldenhersh, "The School of Rock"). Both women will later dupe their new husbands while disguised as men, forcing them to give up their wedding rings, but the reason for it is so obviously just that the women's later petulance is an annoyance that paints them as future hen peckers.
This romantic comedy is at extreme odds with the more well-known drama of Shylock's bond. Bassanio discusses his need for 3,000 ducats as Shylock buys goat meat at the market, obviously more interested in the bond's debtor than the deal. Antonio bound gives Shylock a chance for vengeance and he demands a pound of flesh should the debt be forfeited. When the merchant's ships fail to come in, Shylock demands payment, but a young judge (Portia in disguise) artfully backs him into a corner by allowing the flesh to be taken, but not a drop of blood.
Anti-Semitism of the time should perhaps not be mistaken for the author's - witness the leveling humanity of the famous 'If you prick us do we not bleed?' soliloquy. However, this is one of the Bard's plays which has not aged well and his use of a Jew as his play's villain, albeit a sympathetic one, who is forced to give up his religion and his assets, will make modern audiences uncomfortable at the very least. Radford's early disclaimer will do little to circumvent this, although at least it sets historical perspective. The subplot of Shylock's beloved daughter, Jessica (Zuleikha Robinson, "Hidalgo"), eloping with the Christian Lorenzo (Charlie Cox) and stealing from her father to boot, does not paint them as characters to be rewarded with Shylock's fortune. Radford's twist on Antonio's character as an unrequited lover of Bassanio is an update that makes more dramatic sense for modern times.
Pacino gives a surprisingly good read of one of literature's most difficult characters. While not his best performance, the actor manages to maintain sympathy while not undercutting the plot-driven villainy of the man who seeks vengeance as a death sentence via his enemy's own law. Irons's longing looks at Bassanio makes for an Antonio resigned to his fate not once, but twice. Lynn Collins is a spirited Portia, but Fiennes offers little other than his looks to suggest that he deserves her. David Harewood is a far more intriguing and entertaining suitor as the Duke of Morocco. Mackenzie Crook of BBCA's "The Office" appears as Launcelot Gobbo, the servant who defects from Shylock's household in favor of Bassanio's.
Radford interprets Shakespeare's language traditionally, making some of the situations, such as Jessica and Gobbo's poor treatment of Shylock, less than clear for those not well versed in the material. The bawdiness of the times is suggested by the numerous breast baring whores seen on the bridges of Venice. Cinematographer Benoît Delhomme ("Sade"), working with sets from "Girl with the Pearl Earring" as well as on site locations, ends up with some very dark footage, perhaps in an effort to match his scenery.
Robin did not see this film.
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