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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
The inherent problem with any staging of 'The Merchant of Venice' has never been the pseudo-controversial anti-Semitism, but the fact that there are two story lines wildly different in both tone and content; a frothy romantic comedy and a searing tragedy. While mixing genres was all the rage in the sixteenth century (and mocked by Shakespeare in Hamlet), it rarely fails to grate with modern audiences. As a result, most directors are forced to place an emphasis on one storyline at the expense of the other, and it is no surprise that the decision falls in the favour of Shylock.
Like so many of Shakespeare's great tragic heroes, Shylock continues to fascinate after 400 years because he is such a difficult and complex character. Pitiful, proud, angry, vengeful, weak, arrogant; his behaviour defies simply analysis and continues to be argued over. He is flawed not because he is a Jew, but because he is human. Rarely do modern screenwriters imbue their creations with such richly textured contradictions, and it is to everyone's benefit that we have Shakespeare to draw on for inspiration.
Shakespearean language is wild and rambling, saturated in multiple meanings, word play and metaphor. To be understood it must be wrangled and tamed by an actor with the strength and knowledge to do so. When an actor fails, the words pour forth in a torrent of incomprehensible words, but when he succeeds, the English language springs to life with an immediacy and vibrancy that takes your breath away. Al Pacino is one such actor, and here displays an incredible level of clarity and control that, were there any justice, would sweep every award in the offering. He meets the challenge of presenting Shylock head on, and delivers an extraordinarily subtle and nuanced performance. It would be a crime if we never got the opportunity to see what he does with King Lear.
The supporting cast is noteworthy. Jeremy Irons gives an original take on the familiar Antonio, presenting an older, quieter figure that displays the unsavoury contradictions between medieval chivalry and ugly prejudice of the time. Joseph Fiennes is a revelation as he matures beyond superficial eye-candy to actually inhabit a character for once. Lynn Collins is the only disappointment. Many of Shakespeare's women are underwritten and require an actor to really work hard to bring them to life, and Collins' Gwyneth Paltrow impersonation seems a little flat and unsuited to the darker tone that Radford is aiming for.
The design team must be acknowledged for creating a unique and thoroughly believable vision of Late Renaissance Venice. The city has not looked this ominous since 'Don't Look Now'. Taking full advantage of extant locations and natural light, the film has an appearance of authenticity that is greatly enhanced by the dark and timeworn costume design. All, again, are worthy of award recognition.
The financial backers of films such as this must be commended. With a budget of $30 million, they must go into such a venture in the full and certain knowledge that they will never make a profit, and yet they invest nonetheless. We can all be grateful for it, as the result is a remarkable adaptation that is sure to be a benchmark for many years to come.
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