The Merchant of Venice
directed by Michael Radford
(Columbia Tristar, 2004)

Having watched the film, methinks one is best served by reading Shakespeare's play before watching this adaptation of it. I've always liked and truly appreciated Shakespeare, and never before have I found myself saying "huh?" after certain lines of dialogue, but certain parts of this film quite lost me -- to a large extent, I think, this is due to the fact that an infernal number of lines are whispered and hard to pick up, let alone translate from Shakespearean to modern English. I also had trouble early on distinguishing between two of the male characters (they both had the same grubby, long hairstyle). And you've got characters donning and doffing hideous masks left and right, which doesn't help either. I had no trouble following the principal storyline, but this film left me with questions concerning some of the minor subplots -- had I read the play beforehand, I'm sure these questions wouldn't nag me.

The film does feature wonderful cinematography and some really strong actors and actresses in the main roles, and the most crucial scene vibrates with suspense and nervous energy, but I think it plays much, much better to those already familiar with the play.

This is an immensely complicated story that leaves you with much food for thought. Al Pacino is incredible as Shylock, imbuing his character with power and vehemence that comes off the screen in waves. I find myself quite torn in my appraisal of Shylock; he is both victim and devil, and Pacino captures his dual nature to outstanding effect. As a Jew living in 16th-century Venice, Shylock (like all of his people) was cruelly treated and persecuted for his race and faith. One can certainly understand why he tried to exact revenge on one of the wealthy Christians who treated him worse than a dog and personally spat upon him a mere week before coming to ask him for a loan. The situation with his daughter threw oil on an already burning fire.

Shylock wants revenge, and he has the merchant Antonio (Jeremy Irons) at his mercy, for some ill-timed shipwrecks prevent the far-from-noble Christian from repaying his debt. The bond, of course, states that Shylock can extract a pound of his flesh in payment, and Shylock zealously sets out to take Antonio's heart and will be dissuaded by no one. His race and religion render him all but powerless, so he lusts for the opportunity to legally extract a most bitter revenge. Shylock is best summed up in his famous "do we not bleed?" speech -- even the court scenes toward the end cannot match the power of that incredible speech.

The reason Antonio secured the loan in the first place was to enable his young friend to sail to the manor of a fair, rich young lady whose betrothal is basically up for sale -- to whomever solves what is basically a puzzle. There are three small caskets with different clues, and whoever makes the right choice wins the hand of Portia (a perfectly enchanting Lynn Collins). Several ill-matched suitors fail (much to Portia's relief) before Antonio arrives to take his chance. The problem with this is the fact that any idiot would know which casket to choose, as it is blatantly obvious. Portia goes on to play an integral role in Antonio's final appeal, introducing yet another somewhat ridiculous aspect to the story. The movie doesn't end there, however, as it carries through another new subplot that, in my mind, renders the most dramatic moments of the film anticlimactic -- and that's why the movie is well over two hours long.

I really must read Shakespeare's play now because I do want to clear up, if I can, some of the ambiguities I am left with after watching the film. The central story surrounding Shylock, Antonio and the bond is very powerful, but those subplots and my difficulty understanding some of the often-whispered dialogue did impede my enjoyment of this particular film as a whole.

by Daniel Jolley
17 September 2005

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