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Merchant of Venice, The (2004)
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by Jay Seaver

"An important play that has probably outlived its context."
3 stars

So, here's what we have: A well-cast, good-looking, nicely shot adaptation of one of Shakespeare's most famous plays, which is both faithful to the text and placed in its historical context. The catch here is that that play is "The Merchant of Venice", which the march of years has made the most problematic of The Bard's "problem comedies". The anti-semitism smacks the modern viewer in the face under the best of circumstances, and director Michael Radford opts to be heavy-handed with it.

For a playwright less revered than Shakespeare, someone staging a modern adaptation might perhaps remove dialogue stating that Shylock is Jewish, or downplay that aspect of the character, or remove some of the vindictiveness from the courtroom scene. But this is Shakespeare, and while it may be necessary to streamline a play in order to fit it into the approximately two hours a movie is expected to run, and a director may opt to place it within another time period, changing the words themselves would be considered almost sacrieligious. The irony being that a play initially meant to be a crowd-pleaser, as most of Shakespeare's work was, becomes thoroughly unpleasant by the end.

It doesn't help that Radford strives for, perhaps, more authenticity than is strictly necessary. The movie opens with some text which serves as both exposition and explanation, describing how during this time period, Jews were relegated to living in a ghetto area in even liberal Venice, and had to wear red hats to identify themselves when they left. We're told of Christian extremists who decried the loaning of money at interest, and shown some visuals of this intolerance, including the title character, Antonio (Jeremy Irons) spitting on moneylender Shylock (Al Pacino). This goes on long enough that Shakespeare's language is actually a bit jarring when it finally begins.

Several scenes are also relocated to take place in a brothel, with corseted but bare-breasted prostitutes providing scenery. This is probably an accurate representation of sixteenth-century Venice, but it adds an extra layer of seediness to the procdedings. And the action in Venice is seedy enough, given how some of these characters are portrayed. Bassanio, the romantic lead, is played by Joseph Fiennes with a constant smug look on his face. He's like a member of a once-wealthy family who has just recently emptied his trust fund and hasn't yet learned about earning his way, and now lives off the goodwill of his friends without seeming to recognize what they are risking for him. This is the guy who will win fair Portia's heart? Pacino's Shylock seems to struggle with his words, on the other hand, and as a result comes off as rather a dullard. He doesn't come off as menacing nor particularly righteous, although he does work the speech containing "if you prick us, do we not bleed?" rather well. Irons is straightjacketed by his role in more ways than one; his gaunt physique is swallowed by the large fur coats costumer Sammy Sheldon outfits the male cast in. It's potentially an apt representation of the character as a man of apparent power and influence without much too him on closer examination (he needs the loan since all his capital is invested at sea). Still, he's more trapped by the conflict between Shakespeare's intent and Radford's modern interpretation - the fatherly, good-hearted man is overshadowed by the brief anti-Semitic actions.

The romantic comedy subplots have a completely different feel - the nobles who arrive at Portia's island estate are caricatures who have brought musicians to play while they play at the challenge presented by Portia's late father - whoever chooses the right chest will win Portia's hand in marriage. This is, in its own way, as sexist as other parts are bigoted, but Portia is at least able to mention she finds it degrading, even if she does respect her father's wishes. Many of these scenes are played for broad comedy, and successfully. Portia's quite the catch; in addition to being loaded (private island, beautiful house, happy to repay Antonio's debt thirty times over for the husband who just won her in a contest), Lynn Collins just oozes sex in the role. She's smart and hot and witty enough that it's not hard to actually enjoy this portion of the movie, but, of course, then we must return to Venice for Shylock's attempt to extract his pound of flesh.

We're talking about Act V here, so if you didn't study The Merchant of Venice in high school and don't want to deal with spoilers, jump past this paragraph (and go buy yourself the complete works, because they're worth it - I audited the course after passing it, I enjoyed it so). But, anyway, it's in this last act that the movie loses much of its entertainment value. Because, by the time the courtroom scene was finished, you'll probably pretty much hate everyone. You'll hate Shylock's bloodthirstiness and stubbornness, but also the sadism with which Portia, Antonio and the Duke turn the tables on him. And when that's done, we lose what modicum of respect we had for some of the characters when the movie continues on with a pointless and mean-spirited bit about the women tricking their new husbands into giving away rings which they'd promised never to remove. It's a bit that seems to serve no purpose other than to make the audience say "I hate you all". The only character who winds up looking not-totally-nasty is Shylock's daughter Jessica, and I don't recall the pained looks on Zuleikha Robinson's face in the stage directions of any edition of the play I've read.

I'll readily admit that if Radford had softened this story within the confines of the text, I probably would have complained on the count of trivializing some of the hateful aspects, and if it had been adapted more freely, I might have raised a stink there. As much as I love Shakespeare, and think that this play is important for the contributions it made to the English language and as a picture of the time's attitudes, I'm not sure that there's really any place for it as ENTERTAINMENT any more. Which, in the grand scheme, is probably a good thing.

link directly to this review at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=10537&reviewer=371
originally posted: 02/08/05 13:49:49
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2004 Toronto Film Festival. For more in the 2004 Toronto Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

1/18/08 Pamela White very good adaptatio of Shkespeare 5 stars
8/11/06 amar Its nice 3 stars
5/19/06 Matt Levandowski strikingly good adaptation of shakespeare 4 stars
11/16/05 Childs I was disappointed that Radford didn't take the Shakespearean audience into consideration. 4 stars
11/13/05 Kate Bush good adaption 4 stars
7/05/05 Taylor Fladgate Awesome! A great adaptation. 5 stars
4/01/05 malcolm i'm a shakespeare and pacino fan. how could i not like it? 4 stars
3/03/05 diana Superb performancs by all, Al Pacino was just wonderful, the scenery was devine art. 5 stars
2/09/05 David Bennett Interesting angle...nicely done film 4 stars
2/03/05 KRISHA JEANS I LIKE IT..... 4 stars
1/02/05 UMER great acting by everyone 5 stars
11/10/04 Serena Excellent adaptation and a must see 5 stars
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  29-Dec-2004 (R)
  DVD: 10-May-2005



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