The Merchant of Venice film review

June 25, 2009

Directed by Michael Radford

Written by Michael Radford, adapted from the play by William Shakespeare

Starring Al Pacino, Jeremy Irons, Joseph Fiennes, Lynn Collins and Zuleikha Robinson

This review appeared in the June 25, 2009 edition of the Australian Jewish News.

The Australian cinema release of Michael Radford’s version of  The Merchant of Venice sets a new modern record for the delay in a film reaching Australian shores:  it was originally released in the USA in late December 2004.  You read that right – 2004, five and a half years ago.

Some might recall that 2004 was not a particularly enlightened year for Jewish representation in mainstream film.  It was the year of Mel Gibson’s highly popular The Passion of the Christ, a film which was roundly criticised and became highly controversial for its antisemitic elements, including a pre-Vatican II approach to Catholic teachings on the Jewish responsibility for the death of Jesus.

Aside from the death of Jesus (which Gibson’s film showed in breathtaking and sickening goriness), few stories contain such potential for antisemitism as William Shakespeare’s play The Merchant of Venice, in which Jewish money-lender Shylock (played here by Al Pacino) insists on extracting his literal “pound of flesh” from Venetian merchant Antonio (Jeremy Irons) who does not repay a loan on time.  The play has a long history of being used for antisemitic purposes, notoriously by the Nazis after they took power.  Thus this film version – reportedly only the second “big screen” adaptation since a musical made in 1932 starring Bing Crosby (the latest screen version to reach Australia was by the BBC in 1980) – is certainly a subject of great interest.  As a play, it is an odd hybrid, both a romantic comedy (including Shakespeare’s favourite mistaken identities) and tragic drama of prejudice and revenge.

The history of and controversy over the portrayal of Shylock is extensive, and the debates still rage on.  He is one of the most recognised Jewish caricatures in dramatic history, possibly exceeding Charles Dickens’ Fagin from Oliver Twist.  His fate in the play (spoiler alert: don’t read on if you don’t want to know the ending) is tragic:  he not only loses his only daughter Jessica (played by Zuleikha Robinson), but is later humiliated and forced to convert to Christianity.  Notably, Shakespeare gave Shylock certain redeeming qualities, particularly his famous “Hath not a Jew eyes ….” speech, and almost all modern staged versions of the play show him in a reasonably sympathetic light.

Radford introduces the play in an unusual way.  Prior to the first spoken lines, he shows scenes of Venice (most of them beautifully filmed on location) with titles on screen explaining how the 16th century Jews of Venice were discriminated against and marginalised from society, forced into occupations such as money-lending.  He tries very hard to set a social, political and historical context for the story, which has rarely been done – and which many commentators have complimented him on.

The production is outstanding, with great scenery and luscious costumes.  Radford’s deft editing (at more than two hours, he still dropped some scenes) and the outstanding cast (which also includes Joseph Fiennes – brother of Ralph – as Bassanio in one of his best performances to date) make this a strong and engaging piece of cinema.  He neatly incorporates subtext, suggesting a strong homosexual attraction between Antonio and Bassanio. But it is Pacino’s strong performance as Shylock that grounds the play.  Pacino can be tough (he has been called “scene chewing”), and it is his creased, bearded and anguished face that you remember long after viewing this film.

Radford’s positive efforts notwithstanding, as Hamlet says – “the play’s the thing”.  And no matter how well-intentioned the production (and this one genuinely is), the basic story of The Merchant of Venice is deeply problematic.  Even with the most sympathetic interpretation, the Jews fare very badly in this story and the Christians all live happily ever after.

Noodle film review

June 22, 2009

(This review appeared in the print edition of the Australian Jewish News on 19 June 2009 and the online version on 22 June.)

The new Israeli film Noodle is a sophisticated and satisfying Israeli drama, which blends both modern and traditional Israeli stories.  The film is set against the background of the almost overnight transformation of Israel into a country with some hundreds of thousands of illegal foreign workers, many of them from Asia (who ever would have thought?).

In the film, a twice-widowed El Al flight attendant Miri (Mili Avital) arrives back at her flat to find her Chinese cleaning woman racing out for “just one hour” and leaving her six-year-old son in her care. But the cleaning woman never returns.

Noodle builds on the constant sense of loss and grief that pervades Israel, given not only the history of the Holocaust, but the ghosts of those who have fallen in Israel’s many wars.  In this instance, Miri has lost two husbands in Israel’s wars, one a pilot and one a soldier, and is suffering from serious undiagnosed depression as a result.

Although the script is satisfying (and particularly so in how it deals kindly and gently with the romantic needs of the four main adult characters in the film), Noodle achieves its success especially through a very strong cast.  The real star of the film, without which Noodle simply would not have worked, is Baoqi Chen – a young Chinese actor from Shanghai. Despite starring in his first film, he convincingly displays anger, frustration, joy, sadness and elation.

The moments when his character is happy on screen are truly magical. He was reportedly much beloved on the set of this film and watching you can see why.  Lest we think that Americans have such a hold on top child actors, this young Chinese boy -– incongruously appearing in an Israeli film – gives one of the best child acting performances in recent years.

To read my complete review of this film, click here.

What Just Happened film review

June 17, 2009

My film review of What Just Happened – starring Robert De Niro as a Jewish film producer with two ex-wives and three children – has been published in the Australian Jewish News.  I am a sucker for films about Hollywood, which is a very easily satirised place.   The beauty of What Just Happened is that its comedy comes from situations that are probably not exaggerated, mostly just condensed.   This is probably the best -– at least the most intelligent -– comedy about Hollywood since Robert Altman’s The Player (Tropic Thunder was often very funny, just not that intelligent).  Unlike Altman’s film there is no “dark heart” inside -– just a reasonably sincere, occasionally befuddled but earnest film producer, winningly and disarmingly played by De Niro.  This is not Sullivan’s Travels territory, but is highly recommended for filmgoers who enjoy the film industry and want a bit of depth to their comedies.  To read my complete review, click here.

Film news on 99.3fm Sydney

June 10, 2009

Today – Thursday June 11 – I started doing radio film news and updates on 2NSB, fm99.3, the community radio station in Chatswood, on Sydney’s north shore.  If you are in the listening zone on Sydney’s north shore, most thursdays you can hear me at about 8.10am.  Today I discussed the top box office films in Australia – Terminator Salvation at number 1, followed by Night at the Museum 2, I Love You Man, State of Play, Angels and Demons, and Star Trek – and then surprisingly Samson and Delilah, in 7th place with a total box office of $1,721,406 as of 8th June – and playing in 38 cinemas with a screen average of $10,118, amongst the highest.  This small and rather bleak Australian film about Aboriginal kids in remote Australia won the “Camera D’Or” at the recent Cannes Film Festival for director Warwick Thornton.   It is being marketed superbly (with a slowly expanding release pattern and word of mouth) and gaining a significant audience for what is, after all, a very small film.  It is being heralded as a part of a new age for Australian film:  some reviewers are probably way over the top in their praise, but there is no doubt that Samson and Delilah is an important Australian film event this year.

I also discussed today’s film releases – the most interesting one being The Merchant of Venice, directed by Michael Radford and starring Al Pacino, Jeremy Irons and Josepth Fiennes.  Based on William Shakespeare’s controversial (for its antisemitism) play, this film actually opened in the USA in late December 2004 – that’s right 2004.  It has taken four and a half years to arrive on Australian shores.  Now that is an impressive time lag.  Review of the film to come.

I also reported on an unusual film fact:  It is a frequently told story that when Ava Gardner was in Melbourne filming the movie version of Nevil Shute’s On the Beach (released in 1959), she said that Melbourne was “the perfect place to make a film about the end of the world.”  Here’s the thing:  she never said it.  Neil Jillett actually made it up, when he was a Melbourne-based reporter writing for the Sydney Morning Herald and the Sun Herald.  Jillet wrote about this in 1982.  Gardner never denied making the statement, and it has passed into film (and Melbourne) folklore.

Sydney Film Festival article

June 1, 2009

My article on the Sydney Film Festival has appeared in the Australian Jewish News on June 1, 2009.  In the article, I discuss the following films: $9.99, which has a production design approximating “Tel Aviv Bauhaus modern” meets “Australian suburban”; The Agony and Ecstasy of Phil Spector; Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired; Religulous; Disgrace (whose main character David Lurie played by John Malkovich  is presumed to be Jewish); Unmistaken Child (which proves yet again that Israel’s film industry has moved well beyond “bourekas” entertainment, north Tel Aviv dramas and stories of angst-filled soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, to look at the wider world); Wake in Fright (directed by Canadian-Jewish Ted Kotcheff, who is coming to Australia for the festival and a subsequent theatrical re-release of this classic 1971 film); and Accidents Happen (starring Geena Davis and set in in 1980s Connecticut, but filmed in St Ives and Pymble on Sydney’s north shore – which provide excellent “stand ins” for New England, USA).  I also mention the new Australian teen thriller which will premiere at the Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF) in July, entitled The Loved Ones, directed and written by Sean Byrne  and produced by Mark Lazarus (Australian Rules).

You can also read the Australian Jewish News website version of the article by clicking here.