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4 reviews, 13 user ratings

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Merchant of Venice, The (2004)
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by Peter Sobczynski

"One of the best Shakespeare adaptations in recent years"
4 stars

At some point, anyone dealing with William Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice,” whether they are writing about it, staging it or merely watching or reading it, is forced to confront the question of whether the play (and, by extension, Shakespeare himself) is or is not anti-Semitic. On the one hand, people have argued that Shakespeare’s interpretation of Jewish people, personified by the money-obsessed Shylock–a character who is perfectly willing to sacrifice another man’s life in order to satisfy a debt owed to him and who is so obsessed with his monetary dealings that he essentially fails to notice (or doesn’t care) that his own daughter has abandoned him–was less a personal commentary and more a depiction on how he perceived how others perceived them at the time. On the other hand, there are some troubling hints throughout the play that suggest otherwise; there has always been the sense that Shakespeare believes that Shylock behaves the way in which he does as a direct result of his religious beliefs while other characters, specifically Antonio, the debtor whose default inspires Shylock’s desire for “a pound of flesh,” behave the way they do despite theirs. These are difficult concepts that cannot be avoided and it may be one of the reasons why the play, one of Shakespeare’s most famous works, has only rarely made the leap from the stage to the screen.

In directing his adaptation of “The Merchant of Venice,” Michael Radford has thankfully not avoided these elements (the idea of a scrubbed-up and Politically Correct version is too depressing to contemplate) but he doesn’t really seem to have made any decision on where he thinks it stands and the result is a film that is occasionally a little too maddeningly evenhanded for its own good. At the start, he takes pains to depict that abuses that Jews underwent at the time in order to give a sense of context to the rage and bitterness that drives Shylock to his seemingly irrational extremes. At the same time, the Christian characters always seem to be depicted in a somewhat kinder light even when they don’t necessarily deserve to be; during the courtroom scene in which Antonio is about to give up his pound of flesh, Jeremy Irons is posed like some noble icon who is making a proud and heroic sacrifice with all of the bare-chested glory he can muster without any trace of fear or cravenness or regret where his actions have brought him.

Despite that, this particular version of the material winds up falling firmly in the pro-Shylock camp and that is almost entirely due to the forceful and impassioned portrayal by Al Pacino. In theory, the idea of him tackling the role sounds like nothing more than an excuse for him to indulge in the blowhard bellowing that has dominated too many of his recent performances. Instead, his approach to Shylock is impassioned and yet restrained and even as his insistence on collecting his “bond” takes him deeper into mad and irrational behavior, there is a poignance that Pacino brings that allows viewers to finally begin to understand what is driving him. As a result, the famous courtroom climax no longer plays as a bit of clever comedy and wordplay but as a deeply haunting moment as Shylock finally begins to realize where his desire for a twisted form of justice has led him and how much it has finally cost him in the end. This is one of the great Pacino performances, one so fresh and compelling that it is almost as if no one had ever really tackled the role before.

His work is so strong, in fact, that it winds up making the secondary subplots that Shakespeare added in order to lighten the load seem even more foolish by comparison than usual. The gimmick about various suitors, including Bassanio (Joseph Fiennes), attempting to win the hand of the fair Portia (Lynn Collins) by undergoing her late father’s test of choosing the correct box from a selection made of gold, silver and lead, has never felt as pointless and meandering as it does here; the entire episode seems to exist solely as a subterranean pun about the men trying to get their hands on Portia’s box and alongside the Pacino scenes seems about as appropriate as the bumbling cops stuck in as comic relief among the grotesqueries of “Last House on the Left.” The final scenes, involving some missing rings, also seem like leftovers from another play and while the performances are strong enough, their very presence comes as a distraction, especially after the power of the courtroom scene that immediately precedes it. When these moments appear, you almost wish that Radford had been a little more ruthless in his adaptation and pruned them back considerably.

It stands as a tribute to the rest of “The Merchant of Venice,” then, that it is able to rise above these missteps and inappropriate moments. The film has been beautifully shot (in Venice) and designed but these elements are never allowed to dominate the proceedings as they sometimes do in Shakespeare films. Instead, it is the power of the words and the actors delivering them that drives the film instead. This is one of the better Shakespeare films in recent years, one that can be appreciated by both devotees of the Bard and those who simply want to see a strong drama performed by actors working at the top of their game.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=10537&reviewer=389
originally posted: 01/20/05 23:59:13
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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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