The Merchant Of Venice Movie Review
In his bold, brusque re-imagining of William Shakespeare's "The Merchant of Venice," screenwriter and director Michael Radford ("1984," "Il Postino") has successfully solved one of the play's two inherent impediments -- its insensitive, arguably anti-Semitic caricature of the greedy, vengeful Jewish creditor Shylock, who demands a literal pound of flesh as payment for a defaulted loan.
Applying audacious creative license, Radford has reinvented the character as a tragic and more central figure -- played by no less than Al Pacino -- whose villainy is motivated by a sense of indignation for his treatment at the hands of bigoted gentiles. This "Merchant" is no longer a farce, but a drama thick with implications about the dangers of religious power in society.
Unfortunately, Radford's creativity with the Bard's narrative doesn't extend to renovating the film's weightless, transparently contrived primary plot about Bassanio (Joseph Fiennes), a young man who wishes to woo beautiful heiress Portia (uncommonly lovely Lynn Collins), but fears he hasn't the wealth to make the proper impression. These romantic aspirations lead his merchant-shipper best friend Antonio (Jeremy Irons) to securing the sinister, high-risk loan from Shylock on Bassanio's behalf.
While Shylock's story moves into the spotlight in this film -- with Antonio's implied history of malicious prejudice fueling a desire for retribution that leads to misfortune and shame -- Bassanio's courtship of Portia remains dependent on an asinine plot device. To win the girl he must solve a puzzle, left by her late father, which any simpleton with a basic understanding of paternal love should have knocked in about two seconds.
Radford does so much right in this unique adaptation, including recreating 16th century Venice with a potent realism and having his actors speak in such natural rhythms that there's no need to adjust one's ear to the period dialogue. He gives Pacino the freedom to delve deeply into his character's troubled soul for a singularly potent performance, leading to gripping emotion that climaxes in a knockout "If you prick us..." monologue.
The director's unique approach also exposes Shakespeare's comedy for what it really is -- an immorality play without a single genuinely sympathetic character.
He exposes Antonio as an idiot for getting himself into the pound-of-flesh bargain to begin with. He shows that Bassanio is a charlatan for borrowing that money so he can dishonestly woo Portia by posing as a rich man -- even though a better station in life gives him no advantage in solving the puzzle that would earn her hand. Radford reveals Portia to be a petty hypocrite too, for testing Bassanio's loyalty in the last act by willfully putting him in an impossible position for her own amusement.
But in the process he unintentionally exposes the ineffectuality of that last act, centered on a trial over Shylock's unwavering demand of Antonio's payment. (Warning: Spoilers ahead for those unfamiliar!)
It's hard enough to swallow young, beautiful Portia -- who professes to have little education -- successfully passing herself off as a male doctor with an encyclopedic knowledge of Venetian law, but after watching a shattered Shylock forced to renounce his faith as a result, it's quite incongruous to see everyone else handed a simplistic happy ending.
The problems with this "Merchant of Venice" are further accentuated by the shortcomings of its younger cast members: Collins, while alluring, is of questionable Shakespearian stock (she's often unconvincing even before she dresses in drag), and Fiennes may have made a charming "Shakespeare In Love," but he seems ill at ease in the skin of one of the Bard's more dodgy heroes. (Or maybe it's just his bad comb-over-looking wig.)
But despite several missteps, a Shakespeare production this gutsy and distinctive is worth seeing, even if it's just to be a part of the debate it will stir.