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Venice, 1596. Melancholy Antonio loves the youthful Bassanio, so when Bassanio asks for 3000 ducats, Antonio says yes before knowing it's to sue for the hand of Portia. His capital tied up in merchant ships at sea, Antonio must go to Shylock, a Jewish moneylender he reviles. Shylock wraps his grudge in kindness, offering a three-month loan at no interest, but if not repaid, Antonio will owe a pound of flesh. The Jew's daughter elopes with a Christian, whetting Shylock's hatred. While Bassanio's away wooing Portia, Antonio's ships founder, and Shylock demands his pound of flesh. With court assembled and a judgment due, Portia swings into action to save Bassanio's friend. Written by
Watching this movie and then listening to the commentary, it's clear that Michael Radford doesn't understand this play. The first clue that he fails to fully grasp the work is that he takes pains to set the film in seventeenth-century Venice. Which sounds truly odd, yes, that misunderstanding the film would mean trying to make it as accurate to its location as possible. But anyone who's studied Shakespeare knows that, while he set most of his plays in exotic locals, the culture and values are always contemporary England. This doesn't hurt the film, but it displays a lack of necessary knowledge.
Where Radford kills the film is in making it so dead serious. He manages to suck every joke out of the script, leaving the whole production flat. Every ounce of passion is beaten out of the characters. Even Shylock's 'Do we not bleed' speech is a mild, awkward ranting from a choleric who seems to only be saying and doing what he does because he's supposed to. The lovers are solemn and far too restrained (Joseph Fiennes delivers some of the most romantic lines in the cinema this year in a barely audible whisper), Gratiano (who has to promise to behave at one point) is more sober and collected than Bassiano (who makes him promise to behave), Jessica is reluctant to leave her father and spends her life with Lorenzo pouting.
In the commentary for the bland and watered-down court scene, the director voices his shock that an audience laughed at Portia's 'A pound of flesh, no more, no less' sentence; ultimately concluding that it had to tension release laughter. 'The Merchant of Venice' is a comedy and Radford scoffs at the idea that the most absurd and hysterical portions of the story are anything but the most daringly provocative drama.
The film has no intelligible focus, yet cuts out some of the most entertaining scenes. The characters are forced into high drama veils, so they come out sounding like Ibsen characters reading Victorian poetry. And the comedic ending, where all of the good guys go to bed happy, is drowned in a dignified despair that feels like they're finding stiff- upper-lip peace with impending death, rather than reconciling with lovers. Even Lancelot and Antonio exit the film holding their hats like aristocratic mourners.
The film is poorly done because the creative powers that be don't understand the script. It is stern where it should hysterical. It is reserved where it should be passionate. It is Michael Radford where it should be William Shakespeare.
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