×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice

If "The Merchant of Venice" is one Shakespeare's better known plays lacking a film version, then Michael Radford's tony adaptation to some degree illustrates why. Polished production, prestige cast and enduring beauty of the language should make this a robust performer on the specialty stage.

With:
Shylock - Al Pacino Antonio - Jeremy Irons Bassanio - Joseph Fiennes Portia - Lynn Collins Jessica - Zuleikha Robinson Gratiano - Kris Marshall Lorenzo - Charlie Cox Nerissa - Heather Goldenhersh

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.

Popular on Variety

William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice

U.K.-Italy

Production: A Sony Pictures Classics (U.S.)/MGM (U.K.)/Istituto Luce (Italy) release of a Movision Entertainment, Arclight Films presentation in association with U.K. Film Council, Film Fund Luxembourg, Delux Prods., Immagine e Cinema, Dania Film, Istituto Luce of an Avenue Pictures, Navidi-Wilde Prods., Spice Factory production. Produced by Cary Brokaw, Barry Navidi, Jason Piette, Michael Lionello Cowan. Executive producers, Manfred Wilde, Michael Hammer, Peter James, James Simpson, Alex Marshall, Robert Jones. Co-executive producers, Gary Hamilton, Pete Maggi, Julia Verdin. Co-producers, Nigel Goldsack, Jimmy de Brabant, Edwige Fenech, Luciano Martino. Directed, written by Michael Radford, based on William Shakespeare's play.

Crew: Camera (Deluxe color, widescreen), Benoit Delhomme; editor, Lucia Zucchetti; music, Jocelyn Pook; production designer, Bruno Rubeo; supervising art director, Jon Bunker; costume designer, Sammy Sheldon; sound (Dolby Digital), Brian Simmons, Paul Davies; make-up/hair designer, Ann Buchanan; associate producer, Clive Waldron; assistant directors, Christopher Rose, John Dodds; casting, Sharon Howard-Field. Reviewed at Venice Film Festival (Out of Competition), Sept. 4, 2004. (Also at Telluride Film Festival.) Running time: 131 MIN.

Cast: Shylock - Al Pacino Antonio - Jeremy Irons Bassanio - Joseph Fiennes Portia - Lynn Collins Jessica - Zuleikha Robinson Gratiano - Kris Marshall Lorenzo - Charlie Cox Nerissa - Heather GoldenhershWith: Mackenzie Crook, John Sessions, Gregor Fisher, Ron Cook, Allan Corduner, Anton Rodgers, David Harewood, Antonio Gil-Martinez.

More Scene

  • US record producer The-Dream arrives for

    Top Music Publishers Come Together for Songs of Hope Honors

    The 15th annual Songs of Hope honors united songwriters, music industry insiders and more than a few preeminent doctors at producer Alex Da Kid’s Sherman Oaks compound on Thursday night. Jimmy Jam returned to host the event, which served as a fundraiser for the ever-vital City of Hope medical treatment center as well as a [...]

  • Renee Zellweger Rufus Wainwright Sam Smith

    Renée Zellweger: Judy Garland Was 'My Childhood Hero'

    Awards buzz is building around Renée Zellweger for her performance as Judy Garland, emerging as a frontrunner in the Oscar race for best actress. But for her, the real prize was paying tribute to Garland, of whom she’s been a lifelong fan. “Nobody was prettier, nobody sang prettier…the adventures she had, [she was] my childhood [...]

  • Keke Palmer BlogHer19 Summit

    Keke Palmer Brought to Tears Accepting Truth Teller Award at #BlogHer19 Creators Summit

    Keke Palmer stood surprised and wide-mouthed on the #BlogHer19 Creators Summit stage as she was presented with the Truth Teller Award for her recent acting work — and her viral “sorry to this man” clip. “This means so much,” the multi-hyphenated star softly whispered as she got teary-eyed upon accepting the award. Last week, the [...]

  • LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - SEPTEMBER 19:

    Emmys 2019: Inside All the Hottest Pre-Parties

    It’s (Emmys) party time! Before the 71st annual Emmys go live on Sunday, stars and execs are keeping busy by party-hopping in the days leading up to the big show. Here, Variety gives you the inside details on who was where and what they were doing. Keep checking back right here throughout the weekend for [...]

  • Jennifer Lopez Green Dress

    Jennifer Lopez Closes Out Versace Show in Famous Green Grammys Dress

    Jennifer Lopez has found her way back into the Versace dress that broke the internet in 2000. The “Hustlers” star closed out Versace’s Spring 2020 show in a re-worked version of the revealing, bright green silk chiffon dress that she wore to the Grammy Awards 20 years ago. The dress quickly became a pop-culture phenomenon, [...]

  • 10 Storytellers to Watch

    Variety Celebrates Inaugural 10 Storytellers to Watch Event

    Storytellers from across the spectrum of entertainment — film, literature, podcasting and play writing — were honored Thursday at Variety’s inaugural 10 Storytellers to Watch luncheon at Gramercy Park Hotel, hosted with partner the Independent Filmmaker Project and presented by Audible. Honorees Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, author of “Friday Black”; “Limetown” podcasters Zack Akers and Skip Bronkie; [...]

  • Demi Moore Corporate Animals

    Demi Moore Teases Upcoming Memoir 'Inside Out,' Talks 'Corporate Animals' Team Bonding

    As Demi Moore gears up for the Sept. 24 release of her autobiography “Inside Out,” the actress says she feels like a weight has been lifted. “Even the stuff that I may have been nervous about is completely lifting…because it’s a process,” Moore told Variety at the premiere of her upcoming film “Corporate Animals” at [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content