Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 2 hours 11 minutes
MPAA Rating: R for some Nudity
Directed by: Michael Radford
Written by: Michael Radford
(based on the play THE MERCHANT OF VENICE by William Shakespeare)
Starring: Al Pacino, Jeremy Irons, Joseph Fiennes, Lynn Collins, Zuleikha Robinson, Kris Marshall, Charlie Cox & Heather Goldenhersh
Shakespeare definitely has his share of overplayed works with countless adaptations (ROMEO & JULIET and HAMLET being the biggest offenders), but also supplies a fair amount of underperformed stories. For a variety of reasons, these other plays only receive one or two quality film adaptations at most. MERCHANT OF VENICE is one of these works and there’s a valid controversy behind this play that has kept many filmmakers from attempting a proper movie adaptation of it. This 2004 dramatic take on the material is the first English-language film production of this particular play with sound. Though it does have a couple of minor flaws, MERCHANT OF VENICE is a beautiful take on one of my favorite Shakespeare plays!
Antonio, a wealthy merchant of Venice, frequently bails his financially troubled friend, Bassanio, out of predicaments. As a result, Bassanio owes Antonio a large sum of money, but has thought of a get-rich-quick scheme that will also include a beautiful wife. A lovely woman, named Portia, lives on an island in Belmont and is extremely wealthy. To marry her, Bassanio must borrow the means to get to her home, but Antonio isn’t exactly in the best spot to lend cash at the moment. So the two visit a disgruntled Jewish creditor by the name of Shylock. Shylock hates Antonio for a variety of reasons, but makes a deal with him nonetheless. This loan includes a gruesome price. If Antonio should forfeit on his bond, then the punishment will be a pound of his flesh cut by Shylock. While Bassanio woos Portia, Shylock experiences despair that makes him even more bitter. This isn’t exactly helpful when Antonio must default on his loan…
Firstly, MERCHANT OF VENICE is stunning to look at. Gorgeous locations and costumes give the effect of watching a living art gallery. Fog-laden streets, a beautiful island, and fancy clothing bring out an air of sophistication that is neglected in so many Shakespeare adaptations. This isn’t to say that every one of the bard’s stories on film needs to be a faithful to the location/time period. Though, seeing as this is the first English-language film with sound of this particular play, that was a nice touch. The soundtrack, made of various period appropriate musical pieces, adds to the already prevalent atmosphere seen in every frame. A nice addition to the source material comes in a brief text prologue that gives historical context for the period in which this play was written/set and lends to Shylock becoming the film’s strongest character.
This also comes to the controversy involved in MERCHANT OF VENICE. The play depicts Shylock as an evil Jewish stereotype of the highest order and Anti-Semitism spews out of the supposed good guys. In writing and directing this film, Michael Radford has done his utmost to save Shylock from being an offensive one-note character. Al Pacino has mostly become an over-the-top ghost of the actor he once was, but is excellent in the role of Shylock. The Jewish loan shark is made out to receive the viewer’s sympathy as a horrible product of the scornful citizens around him. This being said, Portia is the film’s second best character and wonderfully performed by Lynn Collins. Playing Antonio and Bassanio are Jeremy Irons and Joseph Fiennes respectively. These two actors deliver in their performances, but the characters remain slightly unlikable. The ending scene might also feel a little anti-climactic to some viewers, but that can be attributed to Shakespeare’s actual writing in that case. Nobody expects Michael Radford to write an entirely new closing scene that feels authentic to Shakespeare, but the final scene may leave some people shrugging their shoulders.
MERCHANT OF VENICE is one of my favorite Shakespeare plays, so I’m pretty much admitting there might be a tiny bit of bias in this review. This taken into account, I love the story and thought that Michael Radford brought it to the screen in a nearly flawless fashion. There’s not much you can do about two unlikable leads, but the character of Shylock is greatly saved into being far more complex than a radical Jewish stereotype. The cinematography, costume design, sets, and soundtrack all lend to this feeling like a completely authentic retelling of Shakespeare’s most controversial play. For those interested in Shakespeare and fans of this particular play, MERCHANT OF VENICE will not disappoint!