Opens Fri Feb 25
Like its infamous Jewish merchant Shylock, Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice is a troubled piece of work. Somber strains run through its allegedly comedic plot like diseased veins, preventing it from entering the world of full-on whimsy. With gruesome revenge plots, an ugly culture clash between Christians and Jews, and a nasty surprise ending, it's as if Shakespeare wanted to write a tragedy--but was forced to put comedic bookends on at the last minute by whoever was commissioning him.
Director Michael Radford isn't a household name, but he has a modest history of moody, meditative dramas (1984, Il Postino), and his steady, rendering of Merchant may be the truest representation of its dichotomous tonal interplay. Humorless, the film contains what appears to be a historically accurate portrayal of Shakespeare's Elizabethan Vienna, replete with murky, candlelight by night, and grayish natural lighting by day. The result is oppressive, but that, too, is in line with the play's inherent nature, and if you're an aficionado, you will find much to like in this adaptation, particularly in the performance of Al Pacino as Shylock. With his huge, weary eyes and bedraggled body, Pacino is perhaps the physical embodiment of the much-reviled Jew, who does nothing to raise his sympathy level when he demands a pound of flesh from his Christian nemesis Antonio (Jeremy Irons) for failure to pay back a loan. Irons, too, is compelling as the perpetually miserable businessman, though his drawn-out, wistful delivery is hardly original.
The scenes between these two actors (especially the masterfully staged courtroom climax) upstage everything else, particularly the fairly standard mistaken identity/romantic comedy side plot with Portia (Lynn Collins) and Bassanio (Joseph Fiennes). The juxtaposition of this silly storyline with the morbidly serious reflections on faith and vengeance has baffled scholars for centuries. Radford's version doesn't make it any less interminable to watch, but at least it depletes the silliness, weaving the contrasting tones of each element into a smooth blanket of solemnity. From a play most notable for its contradictions, Radford has created a film of relentless consistency--an achievement both unique and impressive, if not particularly entertaining.