When I heard that Al Pacino was playing Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, part of me was extremely skeptical. I was fearful he would bellow every other word ("If YOU prick US!"), which has been his acting technique for over a decade. Or, perhaps he would lapse into the Foghorn Leghorn accent that made The Recruit such a hoot.
It's been a crap shoot with the great actor for some time. Watching Pacino is like watching a beloved, over the hill athlete sticking around. He hobbles, the crispness of his movements isn't there, and the mixture of luck and confidence he once had is just a pleasant memory. More often than not, you just hope he just doesn't stumble. You just want a glimmer of what once was.
So it's good news that Pacino delivers a credible performance as Shylock, lending the right amount of driven, remorseful rage to the role. It's a good performance in a good movie, and that's a start. He's too old for the quiet rage of Michael Corleone, but his performance as Shylock reveals a second chance. Maybe he can become an angry old man instead of an angry young one.
Shylock certainly fits the bill. He's a Jew in sixteenth century Venice, meaning he's a target of scorn, ridicule and attacks by Christians, while his profession, usurer, is viewed as unholy. His standing appears to improve when one of the city's most prominent Christians, Antonio (Jeremy Irons), seeks Shylock's financial aid so that his friend and protégé Bassanio (Joseph Fiennes) can properly woo the beautiful, royal Portia (Lynn Collins). Shylock agrees to the loan with the provision that if it is not paid in three months' time, Shylock removes a pound of Antonio's flesh.
Bassanio disagrees with the provisions, but Antonio dismisses him. He has several ships arriving whose contents will more than cover the loan. Shylock says just as much; it's a long-shot clause, a show of trying to make amends. The papers are signed, and Bassanio starts the courtship process. As the movie unfolds, Shylock's world crumbles. His daughter, Jessica, elopes with a Christian and steals his money, no less. When word comes that Antonio's ships do not come in, Shylock sees Antonio and the bond as a way to extract his vengeance for all of his life's miseries. Meanwhile, Bassanio tries to land Portia by -- essentially -- playing a guessing game.
Director Michael Radford stays faithful to the play, in particular the most fascinating angle: the moral ambiguity of Shylock. Is he a manipulating, money-hungry snake, or a man who has every right to seek vengeance against the men who have condemned him? Was Shylock's contract with Antonio a misguided sign of his goodwill, or was it an ill wish that was granted? With his life falling apart, should he be blamed for his desire to cut Antonio's flesh? The usurer's shifty moral character drives the movie, even if you've read the play before, and Pacino (over)acts accordingly. He is meek and humble in one scene, impassioned the next. You never get a read on him, though you may get annoyed at his fey accent.
Pacino is ably supported by Irons, who plays Antonio with a much-needed touch of dignity and compassion. His soft, careful cadence affirms the character's standing in the community and with Antonio. Fiennes and Collins are fine in their roles.
In fact, Fiennes' fragile good looks underscore the movie's theme of uncertainty: Will he woo Portia, or run away with the rugged, loyal Antonio? And that's the fun of the movie: We find that appearances -- and the characters' internal musings -- change regularly, which causes a domino effect of emotional consequences. Jessica, dressed as a boy, abandons her father and her religion. Portia and her servant Narissa dress as men to help Antonio, and to teach their new husbands a lesson on promises.
Where the movie suffers is in its attempts at comedy, which feel unwieldy, especially when we're subjected to Portia's suitors. The last 10 minutes, which every relationship comedian has used since time incarnate, is funny and charming, but after a gut-wrenching scene where Antonio's life and Shylock's livelihood hang in the balance, the placement of the scene is questionable. There is no question of Shakespeare's timelessness. The same can't be said of Pacino, but in The Merchant of Venice we do get a glimmer.
DVD extras include commentary track and a behind-the-scenes featurette.
Aka William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice.
Where can I get some chowder?