Despite the glut of Shakespearean films in the ’90s, there has not been a true film adaptation of “The Merchant of Venice” since the silent film era. The play remains controversial, especially due to its anti-Semitic theme. And although screenwriter-director Michael Radford attempts to deal with this issue, in doing so, he creates a tragedy-comedy hybrid that never completely gels. While beautifully shot and well acted, the film starts out great, its conclusion is ultimately flawed.
Classified among the Bard’s comedies, the film is rather dark. The primary story follows Bassanio (Joseph Fiennes), a nobleman who needs money so he can travel to marry Portia (Lynn Collins). He must enlist the help of his friend, Antonio (Jeremy Irons) and borrow money from Shylock (Pacino), the Jewish moneylender, who demands a pound of flesh if Antonio defaults on the loan.
Radford approaches Shylock, one of the most controversial figures in any of Shakespeare’s plays, by transforming him into more of a tragic figure, focusing on his discrimination and asking us to sympathize with his plight. However, when he is given the chance to exact revenge on the same people that despise him by collecting the collateral, he is turned into a villain and we’re expected to applaud his failure and downfall. It was interesting that Radford introduced Shylock as such a sympathetic character, despite the fact that the climax of the play hinges on his complete downfall and public humiliation. I actually found myself wanting him to collect his pound of flesh from Antonio due to the identifiable presentation given to his character.
The acting is top-notch, especially Al Pacino in the tough role of Shylock. This film showcases the actor’s new direction, moving away from the patented “Pacino scream;” in his recent films, he conveys emotion by merely raising the volume of his voice (see “Gigli,” “Devil’s Advocate”). However, in the courtroom towards the end of the film, there is a sense of true emotion in his voice, inflection that actually gave me chills. The rest of the cast performs almost up to this high standard. Joseph Fiennes gives an above-average performance, but never matches the intensity or passion seen in his other costume dramas. Jeremy Irons puts in a decent presentation as well, but he is so overshadowed by Pacino’s Shylock, that he never gets a chance to step out.
While better than most Shakespearean adaptations, “Merchant of Venice” is not without flaws. Al Pacino’s performance is a sight to be seen, even if the rest of the film is muddled in political correctness and lost somewhere between a romantic comedy and a tragedy.
“The Merchant of Venice” opens Friday in Washington, D.C.