If “The Merchant of Venice” is one of a handful of William Shakespeare’s better known plays lacking a film version, then Michael Radford’s tony adaptation to some degree illustrates why. Despite a series of disclaimers about the treatment of Jews in the 16th century, there’s even less disguising onscreen than onstage that this is an uncomfortably anti-Semitic play and somewhat problematic for contempo audiences. However, while the wisdom behind such a textbook retelling remains questionable, the polished production, prestige cast and enduring beauty of the language should make this a robust performer on the specialty stage.
In recent interviews, Radford has talked about the story of hatred between Christians and Jews as a parallel for present-day conflict between the West and Islam. While that contemporary relevance fails to materialize, the film does stand to spark significant debate and controversy simply by remaining faithful to a work that both victimizes and demonizes the key character of Jewish moneylender Shylock, while here making a tragic, more sympathetic figure of his Christian foe Antonio.
While “The Merchant of Venice” is considered among Shakespeare’s greatest plays, Shylock is regarded as one of his meatiest, most memorable characters. And no less a focus of heated discussion will be Al Pacino’s performance in the role, which gains in stature as the character’s bitterness and anger accelerate. But Pacino can be a grandstanding actor; in the early acts especially, during the character’s negotiation of the loan on which the play hinges, he ladles on the shtick, sounding disconcertingly like a Yiddish Yoda.
An opening-title crawl of historical background explains how intolerance of Jews was a basic fact of 16th-century life; they were forced to live in a ghetto, observe strict curfews and wear an identifying red hat while outside. Banned from being property owners, they became moneylenders.
Radford’s most significant change to Shakespeare’s text — which traditionally opens on Antonio pondering his inexplicable sadness — is a prelude to illustrate this climate of extreme prejudice. The scene shows a skirmish between Jews and Christians on the Rialto Bridge, with Antonio spitting in Shylock’s face when latter attempts to talk to him.
Antonio (Jeremy Irons) is later approached by cash-strapped friend Bassanio (Joseph Fiennes), asking to borrow money in order to compete with the wealthy suitors vying for the hand of beautiful heiress Portia (Lynn Collins). With his fortune tied up in foreign ventures until his ships return, Antonio goes to Shylock to borrow 3,000 ducats. Seizing an opportunity to humiliate the man who publicly reviled him, Shylock insists on a harsh bond: If the money is not repaid within three months, he will cut off a pound of Antonio’s flesh.
Passing the test of three caskets devised by Portia’s late father, Bassanio’s bid to woo the woman proves successful. Meanwhile, Shylock’s daughter, Jessica (Zuleikha Robinson), has run off to marry Christian nobleman Lorenzo (Charlie Cox), taking her father’s stash of money. The widowed Shylock’s loss of his family and fortune enrages and unhinges him. When Antonio’s ships are wrecked and he is unable to honor his debt, Shylock becomes driven in his thirst for revenge.
While Radford’s exposition clearly shows Shylock as a wronged, oppressed figure with justification to seek vengeance, the usurer’s rigid, malicious behavior and inability to show mercy cast him in a sharply contrasting light to Antonio.
An empty shell of a man, the merchant’s deep affection for his younger friend Bassanio has always been ambiguously tinged with romance in the text. But in Irons’ achingly somber, melancholy performance, he seems ennobled by unrequited love, with the hint of a past sexual relationship in the two mens’ scenes together. Warmer and less wooden than he has been in the past, Fiennes also is affecting as laddish Bassanio, who comes slowly to face the sacrifices his friend has made for him.
Pacino invokes some initial sympathy for Shylock as he fires up by measured notches into a forceful reading of the key “Hath not a Jew eyes?” speech, perhaps the main point in the movie where the casting really pays off. But as the action progresses, Pacino does little to humanize the cruel, ultimately pathetic figure, especially as he takes to the Duke’s court, snarling for blood. The American actor’s blustery style and gratingly overstated accent at times make him an awkward fit with the more reined-in Brits around him.
Whatever the flaws in his perf, Pacino is at least dynamic, something harder to say about the women in the cast.
New York legit thesp Collins has the shimmering beauty and regal bearing of Portia but overplays the breathless girlishness. Particularly in the courtroom scene where, disguised as a young man, Portia crushes Shylock’s case on a technicality, Collins lacks the command and quicksilver intelligence an actress like Cate Blanchett might have brought to the role or to the beautiful “quality of mercy” speech.
As Jessica, Robinson is a wan presence, given a rather flimsy note of redemption via her troubled gaze after her father’s downfall.
Radford’s approach of having the actors read their dialogue not in stagily enunciated verse but in more fluid standard speech patterns generally works well. However, Heather Goldenhersh as Portia’s lady-in-waiting Nerissa and Kris Marshall as her sweetheart seem jarringly contemporary, the latter looking half-ready to start high-fiving Bassanio and calling him “Dude.”
Radford’s screenplay judiciously trims the dialogue but adopts a by-the-numbers approach, conserving too many irrelevancies. The writer-director plods through scenes that might easily have been jettisoned, such as Portia and Nerissa’s belabored game with their husbands’ wedding bands after the trial, which makes for a weak final act. Given that much of the comedy has been raked over to favor tragedy, this romantic frippery sits clumsily.
While the lighting at times is a little flat, Benoit Delhomme’s widescreen lensing brings a dense, gritty texture and shadowy depth to the visuals, with Bruno Rubeo’s production design and Sammy Shepherd’s costumes opting for lived-in realism rather than pristine period representation.
The mix of Venice locations and Luxembourg studio work provides a seamless setting aside from some glaringly fake matte paintings of Portia’s Belmont estate.
Jocelyn Pook’s subtle score is an elegant addition.