August 1, 2005 -- “William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice” is a classy adaptation of the classic play with a powerful performance by Al Pacino in the central role of Shylock. It has been years since I read the play, and I have not seen another film adaptation of the story, nor have I seen a performance of the play, but it looks like it would be hard to top this particular film version.
Pacino (“Insomnia”) one of the best actors in the world gives an intense performance as Shylock, a Jew who has endured many insults at the hands of wealthy merchant Antonio (played by Jeremy Irons of “Kingdom of Heaven”) in 16th Century Venice. Shylock sees a chance for revenge when Antonio comes to him seeking a substantial loan on behalf of his good friend, Bassanio (Joseph Fiennes of “Shakespeare in Love”). Shylock says he will grant him an interest-free loan for the entire sum, provided that Antonio agree to forfeit a pound of his flesh if he fails to repay the loan in three months time.
When Antonio is unable to repay the loan, Shylock seeks his pound of flesh in a dramatic courtroom scene which is the film's climax. The play is not a simple drama, however. Shakespeare also folds a romantic comedy into the story as well. This is a difficult combination to pull off, but it works. Bassanio seeks the hand of the fair maiden Portia (Lynn Collins of “13 Going on 30”). In order to win her, Bassanio must solve a riddle set up by Portia's late father to ward off stupid suitors. We see two other suitors fail to solve the riddle. Portia, who is as brainy as she is beautiful also figures prominently in the courtroom scene. The story also includes two other comical romances, the first between Shylock's daughter Jessica (Zuleikha Robinson of “Hidalgo”) and nobleman Lorenzo (Charlie Cox) and the second between Portia's maid, Nerissa (Heather Goldenhersh) and Bassanio's friend Gratiano (Kris Marshall of “Love Actually”).
The film manages to combine these disparate comic and dramatic elements very well. The result is surprising. The comic elements have modern, feminist overtones. The central story, which revolves around prejudice and intolerance of Jews by Christians remains as potent as anything ever seen or heard on the subject. Despite the archaic language set in iambic pentameter (which makes it seem as though the actors are sometimes speaking backwards, Yoda-like), the drama and comedy remain as relevant as ever. Although the play is anti-Semitic, that aspect of it has been toned down somewhat in this film version. I saw this on DVD and one of the extra features includes an interview with Pacino about the film. Pacino said in the interview that he had turned down the role of Shylock in other projects because he thought the play was too anti-Semitic. He said he accepted the role this time because he felt this adaptation by Michael Radford (who also directs the film) does a better job of emphasizing Shylock's humanity.
The film goes to great pains to explain the way that Jews were segregated and discriminated against in Venice. In several scenes, we see Christians spitting upon Shylock and cursing him. Shylock has cause to be angry and his desire for revenge is understandable, particularly after a Christian man made off with his daughter. Yet Shylock's quest for vengeance finally destroys him. While Shylock is a deeply flawed character, so are the heroes of the film. They seek their own revenge on Shylock and they are just as cruel as Shylock is when they get the upper hand.
The centerpiece of the film is, of course, that famous speech by Shylock in which he says, “Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?” Pacino, who is quiet and controlled in much of the movie, erupts like an emotional volcano in this crucial scene, uncovering layers of pain and rage. Actors live for a scene like this and Pacino gives it everything he's got. It is a great performance. The other actors are also excellent. The screenplay is lean and powerful and the direction deft. This film rates a B+.
The Sony DVD I saw had one curious lack, no English subtitles, but it does have closed captioning, so you can use that to more closely follow the dated language. There are French subtitles, and a commentary audio track by director Michael Radford and actress Lynn Collins. The film's main soundtrack is in Dolby® Digital 5.1 sound. The copy I watched was mastered in high definition and was in a widescreen format with an aspect ratio of 2.35:1. There is also a “making of” featurette and a built-in Internet web link to a teacher's guide for classroom study. There are also some trailers of other films on the DVD. The film is rated R due to some partial nudity.
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