William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice

(2004) *** 1/2 R
138 min. Sony Pictures Classics. Director: Michael Radford. Cast: Al Pacino, Jeremy Irons, Joseph Fiennes, Lynn Collins, Zuleikha Robinson.

With his patient and confident telling of William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, Michael Radford adapts, to a modern sensibility, a story that's often branded anti-Semitic. The villain of the piece is Jewish money-lender Shylock, and Radford works overtime to make his furious scheming understandable. Radford takes a stylish but decidedly low-key tack, demanding naturalist acting to crawl under the viewer's skin.

Despite its disturbing depths, The Merchant of Venice is, in fact, a comedy. Bassanio (Joseph Fiennes of Shakespeare in Love), a lusty young gentleman of Venice, desires to travel to the remote isle of Belmont to take the beautiful Portia (Lynn Collins) in marriage. He prevails upon Antonio (Jeremy Irons), a beloved Venetian merchant, to lend him the necessary funds, but since Antonio's fortune is tied up in trade ships at sea, the merchant must swallow his pride and request a loan from the usurer Shylock (Al Pacino, in his first full-fledged screen Shakespeare role). Radford intriguingly chooses to bring out the homosexual flavor of the love between Antonio and Bassanio, the better to enrich the crises that follow.

Shylock agrees to the bond, but demands ghoulish interest. Should Antonio forfeit the scheduled repayment, Antonio must allow Shylock to take a pound of his flesh. Because this is a Shakespeare play, complications ensue, but the joyful surprise of The Merchant of Venice is that Portia emerges as the confident heroine who saves the day with her keen intelligence and decisive action. American actress Collins proves up to the task, adopting a regal British dialect—to match Fiennes and Irons—and an increasingly pensive mood as she matures beyond the bounds of her island enclave.

Playing Shylock in the only way which seems sensible for a modern audience, Pacino stews, glowers, teases, and spits venom. This is a man full to bursting with righteous indignation at his inhumane treatment at the hands of Christians; his murderous overreaction can only be seen as villainous, but Radford gives the devil his due. Like the similarly indignant Katherine in The Taming of the Shrew, Shylock gets put in his place in an ostensible "happy ending" suitable to a 400-year-old comedy, but not before heart-rending expressions of self. Irons expertly navigates the complexities of Antonio's own dual nature, as Radford sees it: hateful bigot and loving friend.

Radford's lush visual treatment of 1596 Venice is painterly (Benoit Delhomme's photography compliments the frescoes of the never-before-filmed Doge Palace), and the use of handheld camera complements the heightened humanity of the acting. The appearance of natural light and judicious use of Venetian locations—including the Rialto bridge—lend further authenticity. Radford puts an ominous haze over the infamous courtroom scene, one of the play's many torturous tests of character. Credit, too, composer Jocelyn Pook (Eyes Wide Shut) for layering the mostly somber tone.

Purists have reason to quibble, but screenwriter Radford streamlines the text to his film's probable benefit; among other choices, the comedic elements of this problematic comedy—including clown Launcelot Gobbo (Mackenzie Crook of The Office)—have been deemphasized. More importantly, the director creatively visualizes the story, from a nearly wordless prologue introducing the setting, culture, and characters to a provocative, likewise unspoken epilogue not found in the text. The film's energy wanes at times, due to Radford's concerted decision not to drive the verse, but his sensitive treatment of Shylock allows the play to be taken as a modern allegory for a Western fear of the other, which proves an invitation for "hate crimes" on both sides of the conflict.

[For Groucho's interview with Lynn Collins, click here, and for his interview with Michael Radford, click here.]

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Aspect ratios: 2.35:1 Anamorphic Widescreen

Number of discs: 1

Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround

Street date: 5/10/2005

Distributor: Sony Pict. Home Entertainment

Sony put together a commendable special-edition disc for William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice. A fine transfer and 5.1 surround track present the film as well as can be expected for a home-theater setting. Benhoit Delhomme's misty-soft, luminous photography basically retains its film-like appearance in a clean transfer.

The play's the thing, of course, but the bonus features provide some nice context. Director Michael Radford and star Lynn Collins—who toured the country to promote the film—sit for a screen-specific commentary. The love-fest aspect of the commentary can occasionally grate, and Collins sometimes interrupts a Radford run with a not-so-incisive comment, but on the whole, this is a great commentary. Radford delivers the goods on the film's locations vs. studio sets, and both commentators offer their insights on various scenes, filming challenges, and actors (the neuroses of Al Pacino, whose capital-M Method inspires sighs of both frustration and awe, and Jeremy Irons are addressed).

No subtitles are included, but the feature is close-captioned. A batch of trailers (including the one for this film) are provided, as well as a weblink to a Teacher's Guide and a half-hour documentary entitled "Merchant of Venice: Shakespeare Through the Lens." This montage of clips and talking heads has a somewhat shapeless feel to it, but the interviewees (including Radford, Collins, Pacino, Irons, Joseph Fiennes, John Sessions, and producer Cary Brokaw) tend to be more thoughtful or informative about their process and Shakespeare's play than vapid in the usual "Electronic Press Kit" manner.

I had rather hoped for an even more expansive special edition (a documentary giving historical context would be nice, and the exclusion of deleted scenes—perhaps Radford's choice—is particularly galling), but economic realities no doubt nixed a two-disc set. At any rate, there's plenty here to reassure Shakespeare and Pacino buffs not to hesitate in adding this one to the shelf.
Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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