The Merchant of Venice (2004) / Drama

MPAA Rated: R for nudity and adult themes
Running Time: 138 min.

Cast: Al Pacino, Joseph Fiennes, Jeremy Irons, Lynn Collins, Zuleikha Robinson, Kris Marshall, Charlie Cox, Mackenzie Crook, John Sessions
Director: Michael Radford
Screenplay: Michael Radford (adapted from the play by William Shakespeare)
Review published December 27, 2004

The Merchant of Venice may not the most engrossing of Shakespeare's plays, but it is one of the most morally complex, treading the line between comedy and tragedy in a manner in which it can be seen as either, largely depending on the treatment.  It's set in Venice, Italy of the 16th Century, in a liberal city that still required Jews to barter no goods, wear red hats to distinguish them from the Christian aristocrats, and be locked in the lower class part of town at night, leaving them little to support themselves but for the practice of usury, or the loaning of money for sometimes exorbitant fees.  In this town, the playboy aristocrat Bassanio (Fiennes, Elizabeth) has squandered himself into debt, but has a plan to repay his loans, if only he might be able to marry the lovely and wealthy Portia (Collins).  He beseeches his friend Antonio (Irons, The Time Machine) to lend him more money so that he might make the trip to Belmont in hopes of winning her hand, and her wealth, in marriage.  Antonio is low on funds himself, but allows Bassanio to use his name and reputation to secure a loan from a Jewish merchant named Shylock (Pacino, The Recruit) for the the money required for the journey.  The price for the loan carries no interest, but the fee for non-payment is precious indeed -- a pound of flesh is to be taken from Antonio, the location of which is to be at Shylock's choosing.

Michael Radford (Il Postino) directs this interesting treatment of the play, choosing to set the tone as a heavily dramatic tale of pride and vengeance.  Like most filmed versions of Shakespeare, the original dialogue is abridged, but rarely altered, so be prepared for the dialogue to be difficult to understand, especially for those unfamiliar with the play, or with Shakespeare in general.  However, thanks to the terrific performances from an impressive cast, and some directorial additions by Radford, the tale is not difficult to follow, even if the words are not.  While you expect (and receive) quality work from the actors like Pacino, Irons, and Fiennes, it is perhaps Lynn Collins, a relative newcomer in films, that impresses the most, as the lovely Portia.  Sumptuous locale work makes this a treat for the eyes, helped immensely by the work of cinematographer Benoit Delhomme (The Winslow Boy). Fantastic costumes and make-up also bolster the look and feel of 16th century Venice very well.

Obviously, this is not a film for everyone, as there is a large segment of society who have little tolerance for Shakespeare, or even costumed period pieces in general.  Even beyond this, some might be offended by the stereotypical portrayal of Jews, and some of the prevailing attitudes of the time that some might deem as racist, or overly patriarchal, especially by the standards of today.  Radford has also adopted the theory (as some have done before) that Bassanio and Antonio are lovers, or at the very least, that Antonio has a homosexual attraction, but this is all subject to anyone's interpretation, and within the framework of the play, it does make sense.

For those who have enjoyed the play, or merely enjoy well-made period pieces, The Merchant of Venice provides all of the visual delights and fine acting performances to delight all but the most purist of Shakespeare admirers.

Qwipster's rating:

2004 Vince Leo