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'The Merchant of Venice' is one of Shakespeare's better-known plays and
is still regularly performed in the theatre. Incredibly, however, this
film would seem to be the first-ever English-language version made for
the cinema rather than television. There were a number of versions made
in Britain or America during the early days of the cinema, but these
were all silents.
The reason for this neglect of the play may be connected with sensitivities about the play's alleged anti-Semitism, a subject which has been even more sensitive since the rise to power of the Nazis in 1933. (This may explain why all previous versions were made during the silent era; in 1908 or 1922 it would have been easier to portray Shylock as a straightforward villain than it would be today). Yet in my view the film is not anti-Semitic at all. It should be remembered that during Shakespeare's lifetime there was no settled Jewish community in England; the Jews had been expelled by Edward I in the late 13th century, and were not permitted to return until the time of Cromwell, some forty years after Shakespeare's death. As far as we know, Shakespeare never travelled abroad, so it seems quite possible that he himself never knew any Jews personally or experienced the effects of anti-Semitism at first hand. The play is not simply about the Jewish question, but is, among other things, an analysis of the corrosive effects of religious prejudice. It may, in fact, be a coded examination of the mutual antipathy between Catholics and Protestants in Tudor England (something of which Shakespeare certainly would have had first-hand experience) and an appeal for greater tolerance between them.
Then as now, traditional anti-Semitic stereotypes had always depicted Jews as avaricious, but Shylock's principal sin is not avarice; if it were, he would certainly have accepted Bassanio's offer to pay him six thousand ducats, twice the amount borrowed by Antonio. Rather, Shylock's besetting sin is anger, and the root of his anger is the way in which he and his fellow-Jews are treated by the Christians of Venice. Not only are Jews in general regarded as second-class citizens, but Jewish moneylenders such as Shylock are particular targets for abuse, even though the services they provide are necessary to the Venetian economy. The play shows the corrupting effects of prejudice. Not only do views of this sort corrupt the Christians who hold them, they can also corrupt the Jews who suffer abuse. Shylock's vindictiveness is out of all proportion to the wrongs he has suffered. By spitting on him and calling him a dog, Antonio behaves like a boorish bigot, but boorishness and bigotry are not generally regarded as crimes deserving of the death penalty. Moreover, Shylock seeks to revenge himself on Antonio not merely for the undoubted wrongs that Antonio has done towards him, but also for all the wrongs, real and imaginary, that he has suffered at the hands of the Christian community, such as his daughter's marriage to Lorenzo.
It is to the credit of the film's director, Michael Radford and of its star, Al Pacino, that they understand all these issues. Pacino's Shylock has, initially, a sort of angry dignity about him that gradually gives way to vindictive rage and finally, after his humiliation in the trial scene by Portia's reasoning, to pathos. We see clearly that he has been the instrument of his own destruction, but we can still sympathise with him. In my view, none of Pacino's performances that I have seen have ever equalled those he gave in the first two 'Godfather' films (not 'Scent of a Woman', for which he won an Oscar, and certainly not 'Godfather III'), but 'The Merchant of Venice is the one that comes closest to those benchmarks. The other acting performance that stood out was Lynn Collins's luminous Portia, speaking her lines with great clarity and simplicity and bringing out the intelligence and resourcefulness that make her character more than simply a romantic heroine. I was less impressed with Jeremy Irons's Antonio, who seemed too passive. Antonio is a complex character; part loyal friend, part melancholy contemplative, part religious bigot and part enterprising capitalist. Although Irons captured the first two of those aspects, it was difficult to envisage his Antonio either spitting on someone of a different faith or hazarding his all on risky trading ventures.
Radford's interpretation of the play was attacked by the film critic of the 'Daily Telegraph' who, although he admired Pacino's performance, disliked the period setting and argued that Shakespeare needs to be placed in a contemporary setting if it is to have 'relevance' for a modern audience, citing a recent stage production which set the action in Weimar Germany. I would disagree profoundly with this approach. The theatre and the cinema are quite different media and, while there have been some striking modernist approaches to Shakespeare in the cinema (Trevor Nunn's 'Twelfth Night' comes to mind), a traditionalist approach is often the best one. (I preferred, for example, Zeffirelli's 'Romeo and Juliet' to Baz Luhrmann's). The idea that we can only appreciate Shakespeare in a modern guise is sheer intellectual laziness; we are not prepared to make the effort to see our greatest writer in the context of the Elizabethan society that produced him, but rather prefer him dressed up as an ersatz twentieth-century man.
Radford's traditional approach not only enables us to appreciate that bigotry and vindictiveness are age-old, universal problems, but also makes for a visually striking film. In the play, the scenes set in Venice itself are characterised by turbulent action; those set in Portia's country house at Belmont are happier and more peaceful. In the film, the Venetian exterior scenes were shot on location against a backdrop of misty, wintry grey skies, similar to the look achieved in 'Don't Look Now'. The candlelit interiors, with faces brightly lit against a dark background, were reminiscent of the chiaroscuro effects of a Caravaggio painting; I suspect this was quite deliberate, as Caravaggio was a contemporary of Shakespeare. By contrast to dark or misty Venice, the Belmont scenes (shot in an enchanting Palladian villa on an island in a lake) were characterised by sunshine or peaceful moonlight.
This is one of the best Shakespeare adaptations of recent years; an intelligent and visually attractive look at a complex play. 8/10.
A couple of errors. We see a black swan on the water in front of Portia's house. These birds are natives of Australia and were not introduced to Europe until well after 1596, the date when the film is set. Also, the portrait of Portia in the leaden casket is painted in the style of the Florentine Botticelli, who was active about a century before that date. Lynn Collins may be reminiscent of a Botticelli beauty, but it seems unlikely that a late 16th century Venetian lady would have had herself painted in the manner of late 15th century Florence.
Michael Radford has done an excellent job bringing this difficult play
to the screen. He has taken a play with a reputation for anti-semitism,
and shown us that Shakespeare knew quite well the humanity of the Jews.
Radford said after the screening, and I agree, that Shylock is his
first tragic hero, the first of his characters to be undone by a
driving, compulsive need for revenge. He also points out, quite
rightly, that a man who was anti-semitic could not have written
Shylock's speech of "If you prick me, do i not bleed?" Radford is
himself of Jewish descent and he has picked out the good and bad of all
characters with delicacy and honesty. no character is free from flaws;
no character is evil. Radford has placed the play in the 16th century,
which gives a lush background of Venetian politics and decadence on
which to project Shakespeare's words.
If you get a chance to hear Radford speak about the film, I highly recommend you take it, since he gives details about life in 16th century Venice that illuminate a lot of the choices he made and give considerable extra depth to the viewing. I'm hoping that the DVD will come out with extensive commentary.
Jeremy Irons does a gorgeous portrayal of Antonio, a man who resigns himself to bearing the burden of his past misdeeds. Lynn Collins, a relative unknown, gives us an absolutely flawless, stunning, and detailed job as Portia. Not only is Ms. Collins beautiful - she also gives Portia layers of intelligence and humor prior to the trial scene i've rarely seen in any production of this play. the rest of the cast also does a terrific job, with a notable performance by Kris Marshall as Gratiano, and a beautifully subtle work by Allan Corduner as Tubal, playing the foil to Shylock. Finally, while Al Pacino pulls out his usual strong (and loud) performance, his best moments are when the camera focuses on him and he says no words, but you can see all the emotions and madnesses flowing into and out of him as he perceives his fortunes changing.
If you like period movies, I cannot recommend this movie enough.
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.
I just saw this at the Toronto International Film Festival in the
beautiful Elgin Theatre. I was blown away by the beautiful
cinematography, the brilliant adaptation of a very tricky play and last
but not least, the bravura performance of Al Pacino, who was born to
play this role, which was perfectly balanced by an equally strong
performance from Jeremy Irons.
The film deftly explores the themes of love vs loyalty, law vs justice, and passion vs reason. Some might protest that the content is inherently anti-semitic, however they should consider the historical context of the story, and the delicate and nuanced way in which it is told in this adaptation.
I am always impressed when a director (and this case
director/screenwriter) takes a piece of classical text - and makes it
come alive. Sure, Shakespeare's text can give you goosebumps even when
hammered out with self-importance, but to see a production where true
inventiveness makes wonderful words even more so - by the provision of
context or nuance not found in the stage directions is simply
awe-inspiring. There are many troubling things about the play. It is a
racist play about racism - and that still sticks. I have never accepted
Jessica's desertion of her father without any acceptable reason. I have
never accepted the Christians' position of sanctimonious
self-righteousness. But, brilliantly, there is a text prologue which
helps us understand the times and politics in which the story is set,
and mercifully, much of Jessica's part is cut.
The text is quite stripped down with many passages cut. But, I only noticed one line which was cut at the moment when I expected to hear it - and it was replaced by a look that said it all. This economy and judicious editing has given us a gripping movie - not just a film of the play.
And at last, there is a rationale as to why Antonio is so loyal and generous to the undeserving/unrelated Bassanio - you can almost feel Antonio's pulse start to race when he catches glimpse of Bassanio passing by in a gondola, or arriving for a visit. But it is as subtle as that - no more. I was spellbound.
There were many other highlights. I felt the arguments during the trial to be heartbreaking. And, the suitors' trials are hilarious.
Add all that to glorious cinematography and costumes that resonated with the times, and you'll understand why I can't wait to see it again. And again.
It is a risky business to film such a lavish production of "The
Merchant of Venice". It could be a stodgy, wooden, period piece, or it
could be laughable for its excesses. This version is neither. While I
am not completely sold by Al Pancino's very restrained Shylock, he does
give a competent and honorable performance. Jeremy Iron's Antonio, is
as always with his tortured-self roles, riveting. Some of the lesser
roles seemed to be a little to much in the spirit of boisterous fun, "a
boy's own Venician adventure story", but the central plot is
efficiently and sympathetically moved forward through the film.
It goes without saying, that the location shots, costumes, and interiors were breathtaking, almost to the point of distraction.
One thing, on which I do not wish to comment on, is the anti-semetic content of the play. The film is as sympathetic to the predicament of the Jews as possible while still portraying Shylock as the instrument of his own self-destruction. It is a sad comment that four centuries later, the director of this film found it necessary to comment on his nuanced view before the premiere screening at the Toronto film fest.
This is a beautiful film, and I look forward to several viewings.
this film was truly amazing to watch, the costumes and scenery were
first-class. Michael Radford has done a tremendous job, on a fairly
constrained budget (as he said at the London Premiere). Costumes and
general time period pieces were exquisite and Oscar nominations for
these would seem in the running.
The acting was simply superb. Al Pacino was (as ALWAYS) perfect. He captured the torture of emotions that run through Shylock impeccably and easily stole the spotlight whenever he was on screen. Jeremy Irons paved the way for great British acting in his earlier times, and now has done the same. Also Lynn Collins, a fairly recent newcomer was perfect as Portia. She was stunning to look at and managed to pull of the speeches with grace.
Although i have all this praise, the film was definitely over-long and many scenes seemed to me like they could have done with a few edits or too. However, the atmosphere of Venice was amazing and it truly felt real in all the mannerisms of the actors.
Ultimately a very successful and ambitious film, that leaves nothing to the imagination, as it is a very realistic approach to Shakespeare. Beautiful to look at and incredible actors too (especially for Pacino) make this a great film that i would watch again an recommend at the drop of a Venetian hat.
I saw The Merchant of Venice in London last week. Great acting by Al Pacino, Jeremy Irons, Joseph Finnes and Lynn Collins. Compare to other movies based on Shakespeare's play, this production has made the play so easy to understand and follow. Bravo to Michael Radford for directing such top actors. The costume and the scenery are great and since it was filmed on location in Venice it gives the film and authentic flavor. I had read the play over thirty years ago at school and the emphasis was on the characters' anti-Semitic behavior toward the Jews and the cruelty of the Christians. I do not know if this movie is going to be controversial but in any case I am sure that it will get few Oscar nominations.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Michael Radford's The Merchant of Venice starts with the burning of
books written in Hebrew. There is probably no image that is more
harrowingburning books in general always twist me up insidebut
burning Hebrew books is evocative of the Shoah in a way that is
certainly purposeful. Al Pacino plays Shylock as a man of tradition who
has endured so many insults, so much horrid behavior, that when the
opportunity comes for revenge, coupled with the theft of his daughter
by one of the same Christian nobles who mock him, he cannot resist.
Radford, when adapting the play, made sure to show the more insulting lines toward Shylock coming from a mean-spirited and hypocritical place in the spirits of the Venetian nobles. In the end, when Shylock stands alienated from his old life, bereft of family and wealth, this production makes it clear that it is the cruelty of the Venetians and his own thirst for revenge that have left him thus, not something inherent to his Jewishness.
Jeremy Irons plays Antonio, as other reviewers have noted, as an "aging queen"; the line readings and gestures make it clear that he is in love with Bassanio. Bassanio may return the feelings, but to a lesser degree as he is off to seek his fortune and the hand of Portia. There is, in fact, a moment where Bassanio kisses Antonio on the lips, after Antonio has promised to use his credit to fund Bassanio's suit of Portia, and I was left feeling that Bassanio is cruelly using Antonio, knowing the older man cannot resist him.
Antonio is casually pitiless and spiteful to Shylock, but in a way that seems automatic. Antonio has no special animosity toward Shylock, but treats him as he would any other Jew with whom he came in frequent contact--in his world-view the Jews are inferior and deserve no better than this treatment of them. This is brought out semi-comically when Shylock is debating, out loud, whether to loan the money to Antonio, and Bassanio and Antonio roll their eyes at one another.
All of the characters except Shylock and his daughter Jessica wear literal masks at some point during the movie, and even when they do not, there is something mask-like about their demeanors. Portia seems more at home in a young man's clothes than as a maiden on her estate, and Bassanio more comfortable when his borrowed finery surrounds him than his destitute beginnings. The Christian characters in the play all have this hypocrisy of spiritwhen they are least themselves, they are most happy. Even Antonio is most eloquent and alive when he faces death in the courtroom, for earlier in the movie he is a pale shadow of himself: "I know not why I am so sad:/It wearies me; you say it wearies you."
Kris Marshall (who played Colin, the randy Brit who goes to Wisconsin in Love Actually) was very funny as Gratiano, and well matched in the girl who played the maid, although on her own she was difficult to take. I wasn't sure what to make of the actress who played Portia at first, but she has these interesting eyes that look always veiled and opaque, perfect to play a woman who is both more and less than what she seems.
The courtroom scene was staged very well, I thought. The press of spectators in a small room gives it a claustrophobic feel. The scene also brought out the point that Shylock has gone to court to collect his due because Venice had a set of laws upon which he could rely, a set of laws in front of which all men were equal. But he learns this is not true, when Portia says:
If it be proved against an alien That by direct or indirect attempts He seek the life of any citizen, The party 'gainst the which he doth contrive Shall seize one half his goods; the other half Comes to the privy coffer of the state; And the offender's life lies in the mercy.
No matter what, Shylock is an alien, no matter how long he has lived in Venice, never a citizen, and so the laws he trusts finally fail him.
I was expecting to hate the ring scene at the end, but Radford did two interesting things with it. One, he did not stage it light-heartedlyfrom the music and the expressions it is clear that much is at stake between Portia and Bassanio. Also, coming on the heels of the courtroom scene, where Portia strips first Antonio, then Shylock of power and dignity, it shows these characters' essential shallowness and triviality. Secondly, when Portia returns the ring to Bassanio, she does so through Antonio. Antonio gives it to Bassanio in such a way that it is a poignant parting, and an indication that he has given Bassanio leave to turn away from his bachelor relationships and toward his marriage.
Interestingly, Radford cut out the line at the end where we learn that Antonio's wealth has not foundered after all, that at least some of his ships will return to him. I did think it was a cheap way out for Antonio to suffer no lasting material effects from his bargain with Shylock. Leaving out his restored fortunes leaves Antonio punished at the end of the movie.
This was not a movie that swept me away, but I think it was, in many ways, the best movie that could be made from this play. It is a very difficult play, and of all of Shakespeare's plays, it may be the one that has changed the most in interpretation since it was first written.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice is about a Jewish
moneylender and his bond to extract a pound of flesh from the wealthy
merchant Antonio, the forfeiter of a debt. The Jewish moneylender, of
course, is Shylock and he is given such a towering performance by Al
Pacino that even outstanding actors like Jeremy Irons, Joseph Fiennes,
and Lynne Collins fade into the background. The film is set in 16th
century Venice and director Michael Radford relies on setting, mood,
and realism to tell its story, rejecting lavish period costumes or a
modern setting with rock music to appeal to a wider audience.
Radford slices the play's three-hour length to a manageable two hours and eight minutes and also provides some historical background. In the opening narration, he tells us how Jews came to England, were subject to increasing persecution, and eventually expelled from England. They were forbidden to own property, could make profits only by lending money at interest, and were forced to live in a Venetian "geto", a forerunner of darker events to come. In the film, the merchant Antonio (Jeremy Irons) spits upon Shylock in public, yet feels no shame in going to the usurer to borrow 3000 ducats to help his friend and suggested lover Bassanio (Joseph Fiennes) to properly court Portia (Lynne Collins), a wealthy heiress. Though Shylock has been insulted by Antonio, he agrees to loan the money without interest for three months on the condition that forfeiture of the bond grants him the right to exact a pound of flesh from Antonio's heart.
The play is primarily a drama of hatred and revenge, but like many of Shakespeare's works there are touches of broad comedy as well. Here the comedy involves three pairs of lovers: Bassanio and Portia, Gratiano, Bassanio's friend, and Nerissa, and Lorenzo, another friend of Bassanio, and Jessica, Shylock's daughter. Portia has offered herself to the person who can pick the right treasure from one of three boxes, made of gold, silver, and lead. The Prince of Morocco chooses the one of gold, the Prince of Aragon the one of silver and both are disappointed. Bassanio, however, loves her for herself and opens the leaden casket to find the portrait within. Radford's adaptation conveys a remarkable feeling for time and place. Portia's residence at Belmont suggests one of those splendid summer homes complete with immaculate gardens and art treasures hanging in every room and contrasts well with the grungy look of Shylock's city with its dank alleyways.
When it becomes clear that Antonio cannot repay the debt, Bassanio returns to Venice, leaving Portia behind. When he arrives, the loan is in default and Shylock is demanding his pound of flesh. Even when Bassanio, backed by Portia's wealth, offers many times the amount in repayment, Shylock is intent on revenge not only for the loss of the money but for a lifetime of outsider status. The duke, who sits in judgment, will not intervene as Portia enters in the guise as a lawyer to defend Antonio. It is here that the film reaches its dramatic heights as all parties come to court to achieve a final resolution.
The Merchant of Venice is not only about an unpaid debt but also about the estrangement of Jews from Christian society and their desire for belonging. It has been one of Shakespeare's most controversial plays and analysts have debated for a long time whether it is an anti-Semitic play or simply a play about anti-Semitism that reflects the prevalent view of Christian society in Elizabethan England. Although Shylock is definitely a caricature, he is an ambiguous figure and there are many indications that Shakespeare views his flaws as human failings, not Jewish ones. The Duke recognizes that he is simply a man who has failed to adhere to the compassionate language of the Torah.
In the monologue, "I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? 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?", Shylock shows a universal humanity, expressing the equality of all men. Though we are horrified at the sentence he wishes to carry out, we can feel his pain accumulated over the years. Pacino's performance brings new vigor to the text and his often over-the-top persona is replaced with a gentler, more understated demeanor that brings understanding to his cause.. During a Toronto International Film Festival interview last September, Radford said about Pacino, " when you work with a brilliant actor, you have a great machine. It's a bit like driving a powerful car. You have to dare to do it." He has dared and we are all the beneficiaries.
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