In 16th-century Venice, Italy, a penniless young man, Bassanio (Joseph Fiennes, Shakespeare in Love), needs a large sum of money in order to marry a young heiress (Lynn Collins, John Carter). Bassanio asks friend Antonio (Jeremy Irons, Reversal of Fortune) for help, so Antonio gets a loan from a Jewish moneylender named Shylock (Al Pacino, Serpico). However, Shylock has an unusual request: if Antonio doesn’t pay the money back, he will have to give Shylock a pound of his flesh.
Reaction & Thoughts:
“If you prick us do we not bleed? If you tickle us do we not laugh? If you poison us do we not die? And if you wrong us shall we not revenge?”
It’s shocking to realize that this is the first big-screen sound movie of William Shakespeare’s famous play The Merchant of Venice. Why did it take so long for a filmmaker to adapt the play into a movie? I don’t have the answer to that. What I do know is that the long wait wasn’t worth it. The Merchant of Venice falls completely flat, despite having so many talented people in front of and behind the camera.
Purists might object, but after reading many Shakespeare plays I’ve come to the realization that making a successful Shakespeare movie hinges on the material being properly restructured and redacted. In my opinion, trying to keep as much as you can will only lead to trouble. That is particularly true with the complex The Merchant of Venice, which presents modern filmmakers with some difficult challenges.
Whoever decides to adapt The Merchant of Venice to the screen has to wrestle with two issues. First, the play tells two parallel stories that are different in tone: one is a lighthearted love story and the other is a somber tale of revenge. Balancing these two separate stories requires skill. The second and most problematic issue is the play’s hints of racism. Unfortunately, writer and director Michael Radford (1984 and Il Postino) doesn’t find a satisfactory way to deal with these problems.
The Merchant of Venice vacillates awkwardly between sweet romance and heartbreaking tragedy. Plus, I couldn’t help but sympathize with the bitter and vengeful Shylock, played by Al Pacino. I get that Shakespeare wanted to warn us about the toll revenge takes on a person, but it was hard for me to celebrate Shylock’s destruction by the same racist people who humiliated him for being Jewish. It’s a problem created by Shakespeare that writer and director Radford is unable to fix.
It doesn’t help that Pacino isn’t all that convincing as Shylock. Though he has a well-documented love for Shakespeare, Pacino looks out of place. Like Bogart and Cagney, Pacino has this modern vibe that makes him all wrong for period pieces. In addition, the play’s most famous moment, Shylock’s “revenge” speech, doesn’t carry any weight because Pacino decided to throw away the lines (for my money, Christopher Plummer did a superior job with the speech in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country).
Unsurprisingly, Joseph Fiennes and Jeremy Irons fare better as Bassanio and Antonio respectively. The two British actors are fine — I had a feeling that they could have played these roles in their sleep. Lynn Collins is perfect as the clever and beautiful Portia. I can’t finish without praising the film’s recreation of 16th-century Venice: Bruno Rubeo’s (Driving Miss Daisy) sets are breathtaking, and the cinematography by Benoît Delhomme (The Theory of Everything) is gorgeous too.
Conclusions & Final Thoughts:
I just didn’t care for The Merchant of Venice. To be honest, after thinking about it, it’s entirely possible that I don’t like the play either. For starters, the mix of genres didn’t work for me. Furthermore, I was rooting for the “vengeful guy” and I knew I wasn’t supposed to feel that way. All that being said, Al Pacino fans might want to check out the actor’s one and only venture into Shakespeare’s world. Color, 131 minutes, Rated R.