The Merchant of Venice film review

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.

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