aka WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE’S THE MERCHANT OF VENICE
Movie Review by Lisa Henshall
Starring: Al Pacino, Jeremy Irons, Joseph Fiennes, Lynn Collins, Zuleikha Robinson
Director: Michael Radford
For those who like their onscreen Shakespeare to be authentic, without the need to add modern clothes or language, then THE MERCHANT OF VENICE stands heads above the crowd. It is a faithful and luscious reproduction of one of Shakespeare’s most complex plays and one which has never been committed to film before (Orson Welles tried but was forced to abandon the project believing it to be unfilmable). The costumes, sets and scenery are breathtaking as Venice is recreated in all its murky and slightly seedy glory. The acting is also first rate with an amazing cast, headed by Al Pacino, proving that he was made for Shakespeare!
THE MERCHANT OF VENICE is an incredibly complicated story but here are the basics…
In 16th century Venice, Jews were ghettoised and forced to wear a red hat to distinguish them. Money lending was strictly forbidden by Catholic law so it became the main profession for Jews. The story follows Antonio (Irons) who borrows money from Shylock (Pacino), in order to help his friend Bassanio (Fiennes) to woo the beautiful Lady Portia (Collins).
However, Antonio has insulted and spat on Shylock in public and the moneylender take revenge – instead of interest on repayment, he demands a pound of Antonio’s flesh if he reneges. When Antonio’s other friend Lorenzo elopes with Shylock’s only daughter (and most of Shylock’s money) the man is driven mad with rage and when Antonio’s ships all sink and he can’t repay the money, Shylock demands his pound of flesh and takes it to court.
Shakespeare’s play is supposed to be a comedy drama; however, without studying the play or seeing a theatrical reproduction, I find it hard to see how the two elements are supposed to work together. The lighter moments somehow feel tacked on at times. That aside, Radford’s adaptation is for the most part thoughtful and the language exquisite. Shakespeare was way ahead of his time with the character of Lady Portia, and Collins does a tremendous job of portraying the intelligent and loyal new wife of Bassanio, who dresses as a man in order to win Antonio’s case in court, and proves that she is more than a match for any man.
Pacino’s Shylock is extremely convincing and an empathetic character, even when he is ranting in court, brandishing a knife and demanding Antonio’s pound of flesh. But even though we want Antonio to be spared, the extent of Shylock’s downfall seems extraordinarily cruel, especially in forcing him to become Catholic. The pitiful image of Shylock standing in the cold grey of Venice locked out of the ghetto having lost his friends, his daughter and his money seems a very hollow victory and I’m not entirely sure what point Shakespeare or Radford were trying to make. But it is still a magnificent, sumptuously filmed adaptation and well worth catching on the big screen.