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William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice
2 reviews

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Movie Details

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Directed By
Michael Radford

Written By:
Michael Radford, William Shakespeare

Al Pacino, Joseph Fiennes, Zuleikha Robinson, Lynn Collins, Charlie Cox

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William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice (2004)
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Movie Review by Nelson
January 29th, 2005

"The Merchant of Venice" has always been one of Shakespeare's most difficult plays for modern audiences because of the cruelty exhibited by one of its main characters, Shylock, the Jewish moneylender who charges as his bond to the title character a pound of flesh. To many, Shylock is the embodiment of an anti-Semitic caricature, a character who cares for nothing except his own personal revenge and profit. Michael Radford's adaptation, however, manages to make Shylock's cruelty understandable, if not forgivable, by showing his poor treatment at the hands of both the Christians of Venice and by his own daughter, Jessica. Radford's cause is greatly aided by Al Pacino's acting, which succeeds in making Shylock's monomania for receiving his bond almost seem to make sense at times.

To be sure, there are a few times when Shakespeare's words sound strange being spoken with Pacino's distinctive New York accent, but these times are not frequent. More often, Pacino recites his lines expertly and resists the tendency to overplay the part, and you come away impressed by Shylock's cleverness and clarity of thought in trying to pursue what he sees as justice in the only way that's available to him.

Unfortunately, the other actors in the movie are not able to do as much with their roles, particularly Jeremy Irons in the title role of Antonio, whose love of his friend Bassanio, played by Joseph Fiennes, leads him to make the ill-considered bargain with Shylock in the first place. Irons' performance is pretty much one note throughout of melancholy resignation—first from losing his friend to marriage and then to forfeiting his life to Shylock. Joseph Fiennes plays the role of Bassanio fairly passively as well—his performance is all dewy-eyed longing and gratitude so deeply felt he apparently can only express it in whispers (interestingly, the homosexual undertones of the two's relationship are made more explicit with a kiss that Bassanio gives Antonio in gratitude for helping him secure his loan).

Meanwhile, the actress who plays Portia, Lynne Collins, is far more effectively used as the young lawyer Balthazar, which she plays in drag, who is brought in to advise on the case in the climactic courtroom scene. As the coveted Portia, Collins's performance is somewhat flat, but as Balthazar, she's able to display a sharp intelligence and a strong screen presence. Even though I had some vague recollection of how the courtroom scene would end from having read the play in my college days, the scene was still suspenseful and riveting as Shylock prepares to take his bond.

Pacino's performance here is a marvel, as well, as you see him initially press his case with cool logic and confidence. As he begins to realize his case is lost, however, his shoulders slump, his eyes cast downward, and it's almost as if you can see the air escaping out of him.

The final scene involving Portia and her handmaiden taking their husbands to task for an indiscretion that they themselves had arranged while in disguise is also extremely well done, reinforcing the themes of loyalty and honor.

Overall, Radford, who also wrote the screenplay, does an excellent job of making the movie cinematic, finding appropriate actions and settings with which enliven the rich dialog. The art direction here, too, is impressive, with lush, almost decadent, costumes and sets, representing well the Venice of the time. Despite some acting that was not as strong as it could have been, "The Merchant of Venice" is about as good an adaptation of Shakespeare as you're going to see on screen, and is worth seeing for Pacino's performance alone.

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