Merchant of Venice, The (2004) *** 1/2
Directed by Michael Radford; written by Mr. Radford, based on the play by William Shakespeare; director of photography, Benoît Delhomme; edited by Lucia Zucchetti; music by Jocelyn Pook; production designer, Bruno Rubeo; produced by Cary Brokaw, Barry Navidi, Jason Piette and Michael Lionello Cowen; a Sony Pictures Classics release. 127 minutes. Rated R. Cast: Al Pacino (Shylock), Jeremy Irons (Antonio), Joseph Fiennes (Bassanio), Lynn Collins (Portia), Zuleikha Robinson (Jessica), Kris Marshall (Gratiano), etc.
First, about Director Michael Radford. An Englishman born in India (1946) he has made few movies, has written all of them, is known for his excellent film "Il Postino," but should be also appreciated for George Orwell’s "1984" (released in 1984) as well as the little known, set in Africa "White Mischief" (1987) whose title echoes that of the 1932 novel "Black Mischief" by Evelyn Waugh.
Of the Shakespeare plays turned into movies, so far as I know, except for TV films, there is just one talkie "straight" adaptation of " The Merchant of Venice," a French film made in Italy. Now comes Radford’s—and it is a little gem. It is, like the play, not for the hoi polloi, doubly so as its reputation for anti-Semitism has made matters especially touchy after the Nazi era.
The setting of the play (written in the last decade of the 1500s) is 1596 Venice, a place that Shakespeare did no know, but one that the movie uses in an impressive way. (It was entirely shot there.) I will not go into details but I must stress that this "comedy" (sic!) qua film is spectacular and a fascinating mix of drama, near-tragedy and comedy. And, in today’s parlance, a work of black humor too.
Perforce, the screenplay condenses and cuts, but wisely and cleverly, so that there are no major losses. I followed twice the text of the play and did not regret that some of the rather talkative dialogues and monologs were trimmed out. Among them, the last pages of the text when, with all’s well that ends well, the potential tragedy has been avoided an problem solved, and when the play does become pure comedy around matters of rings.
Venice-then is a thing of beauty, with terrific sights, reconstructions of the period, including beautiful clothing, landscapes and seascapes.
In Venice, the Jews are (were) mainly moneylenders because this occupation was unacceptable (sinful) to the Christian majority. The Jews are discriminated against, have to wear distinctive hats, etc. One cannot help thinking of the Nazi days when Jews were labeled in several ways! The merchant here is Shylock, whom Al Pacino plays to perfection. Antonio (Jeremy Irons) is himself a merchant/businessman, whom we see treating Shylock in disgusting fashion. But then Antonio has to go to and get a loan from Shylock. The reason is that Antonio’s best friend (and perhaps lover) Bassanio, has fallen in love with wealthy Portia and needs funds as he courts her. Antonio has all his funds tied up in his three ships which he expects to return soon, laden with profitable goods, from major voyages.
That’s when the famous pound of flesh enters the landscape. I won’t get into familiar details but, of course, the day comes when the ships don’t, when Shylock claims his pound, and… well, you either know the play and there is no need to elaborate – or you don’t, in which case, faithful to the wise advice of Alfred Hitchcock, the end must not be revealed.
The movie’s rich photography and settings are feasts for the eyes. The direction is powerful and the colorful performances range from good to excellent, except for Pacino’s. His acting is beyond excellent, from his moments of restraint to his eloquent silences to his states of sadness (including his despair when his daughter Jessica elopes, takes many of his treasures, marries a Christian, converts.) His states of fury or disgust or you name it are performed with a A to Z characteristics that, had this film been in the running, would and should have gotten the Best Actor Oscar.
The R rating is wrong and super-prudish. It was no doubt caused by a couple of times when, most fleetingly, prostitutes with bare breasts cross the screen. The obscenity is in the rating, not the sights. I give it a PG-13.
Note. It is a good thing the film plays at the Art Theatre. It has the best sound-system in town. The amount of speech, and the text’s Shakesperean English necessitate top-notch accoustics.