Film Reviews: Wednesday, February 16, 2005
Al Pacino contemplates his revenge through a Venetian fog in ‘The Merchant of Venice.’(Photo by Steve Braun)
The Merchant of Venice
Starring Al Pacino, Joseph Fiennes, and Lynn Collins. Written and directed by Michael Radford, based on William Shakespeare’s play. Rated R.
Jewish Questions

Shakespeare’s troubling The Merchant of Venice receives an unsatisfying film treatment.


Whether it’s given a good production or a bad one, The Merchant of Venice is always deeply troubling, more consistently so than any of Shakespeare’s other plays. When the cornerstone of Western literature tells the story of a 16th-century Jewish moneylender named Shylock who seeks revenge against a Venetian merchant named Antonio who can’t pay back a loan, we have to ask what the author’s trying to say. Is Shakespeare demonstrating the anti-Semitism prevalent in his day, or an enlightened modern response toward that attitude, or (as I’ve come to believe) some combination of both?
As crucial as this question is for audiences, the play poses an even bigger practical concern for a director, whether that’s on stage, film, television, or some other medium: Shylock’s plotline, driven by powerfully resonant issues, has to share equal time with another plot about Antonio’s friend and possible homosexual lover Bassanio as he woos Portia, a wealthy woman who tests her suitors in a rather whimsical fashion by having them choose among three caskets. How do you keep this romantic story from appearing trivial beside Shylock’s? How do you reconcile these separate stories? What is the play about?
Answering this latter set of questions is exactly where Michael Radford’s film fails, unfortunately. To be fair, I’ve never seen a production that brought the halves of the play together in a totally satisfying way. Maybe there is no answer. Maybe Shakespeare simply mishandled this volatile material — he was the greatest of all time, but even he messed up occasionally. Though the movie never finds a way to make Portia’s plot seem like any more than an irritant, it is determined to take on its source’s harsher aspects. However, its fundamental good taste muffles anything in that direction.
This despite the presence of Al Pacino as Shylock. Two surprises are in store for you with this actor here. One is that he resists the urge to chew the scenery and instead delivers a fine, restrained performance. The other is that you sort of wish he hadn’t. In contrast to his other cinematic Shakespeare performance as Richard III in his own Looking for Richard, he approaches this character in a much more grounded way. It’s a modulated, sympathetic performance — when his daughter Jessica (Zuleikha Robinson) runs away from home, Shylock sinks to the ground and lets out these heaving sobs. In the climactic scenes, Pacino goes all stony cold as he tries to extract a pound of Antonio’s flesh. He plays Shylock as a guy who’s doing something very wrong out of righteous anger, trying to avenge the emotional wounds inflicted on him by a corrupt and hateful society. This is good as far as it goes, yet he misses the furious whirl of mental energy that propels Shylock’s quest for vengeance. In the context of this movie’s visually lush production, it needed a white-hot performance from an actor willing to really sink his teeth into the character’s sulfurous monologues. This quality Pacino doesn’t deliver.
As Portia, relative newcomer Lynn Collins deserves credit for seeming just as much a part of this world as Shylock. The Houston native has only had bit parts in such films as Down With Love, 50 First Dates, and 13 Going on 30. She comes through admirably in her first sizable film role, particularly in the extended courtroom scene late in the film where she’s disguised as a young male lawyer, keeping all her emotions close to the vest as she realizes that Bassanio loves Antonio more than he’ll ever love her. She also looks the part — when we see an artist’s rendition of her, you realize just how much she resembles an Italian Renaissance painting. In a cast that boasts Jeremy Irons as Antonio, Joseph Fiennes as Bassanio, and Kris Marshall (whose bellowing, swaggering Gratiano gives the film a healthy jolt), Collins is the one who leaves the biggest impression.
Still, these actors can’t counteract the director’s overly tasteful approach to the material. He’s too busy taking in the sumptuous costumes and the setting (the movie was filmed in Venice) to make a coherent statement out of this diffuse and unruly play. It doesn’t help that, out of reverence for the text, he leaves too much of it in, resulting in a film that’s too long at 138 minutes. This knotty material cries out for a director who can engage it on a scholarly level, hash out all the issues at work, and treat them creatively. Radford does none of these things adequately, and he doesn’t make a convincing enough case for the play as a straightforward plea for tolerance.
In the end, maybe we’ve just moved past this work. Shakespeare was writing for an anti-Semitic audience. He was willing to play to their bias, while stinging the crowd through his multifaceted conception of Shylock and that famous “Hath not a Jew eyes?” speech. Michael Radford obviously wants his movie to speak to the prejudices of our time, but The Merchant of Venice may just be too much a product of its time.

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