Like The Passion of the Christ released a year before, Michael Radford’s film of The Merchant of Venice is doomed to pre-viewing judgment. Is the play anti-Semitic? This question resurfaces anytime and anywhere the play is produced. Renowned lit critic Harold Bloom offered these memorable words, “One would have to be blind, deaf, and dumb not to recognize that Shakespeare’s grand, equivocal comedy is nevertheless a profoundly anti-Semitic work.”
I wonder, then, if this play is so vehemently and inescapably anti-Semitic, why so many powerhouse actors have jumped at the chance to play Shylock, a supporting character and Jewish caricature? Luminaries like Laurence Olivier, George C. Scott, and Dustin Hoffman have all tackled the part in the past, and now we have Al Pacino’s take.
Shakespeare was of his time, no question, but his genius transcended time. It’s almost as though Shylock was originally conceived as a one-dimensional villain bellowing blood-thirstily for his bond, only to become something more in the process of writing. I can picture Shakespeare scribbling away with his feathered quill, the ghost of Marlowe’s Jew of Malta over his shoulder, and happening upon the line, “Hath not a Jew eyes?” and Eureka! One of the most breathtaking, heartbreaking, and humane passages in the canon of world literature emerges…but maybe that’s romanticizing the old Bard just a bit.
However it happened, we’re left with a play listed as one of Shakespeare’s “comedies,” but which is hardly a light-hearted romp. It’s a haunting piece of work and this most recent production is, significantly, the first cinematic adaptation since the silent era (excluding TV versions). Why the dearth when Shakespeare has consistently been one of Hollywood’s most popular screenwriters?
Perhaps the proof is in the pudding. The Merchant of Venice is discomfiting to watch, shifting incongruously from sunny broad comedy (the various misguided courtships of Portia) to dark and brooding tragedy (the scenes with Shylock). Audience discomfort is not a mark of a bad production, however. Far from it. Radford’s film is a resounding success because it is a relatively straightforward adaptation of the play. Radford avoids a strictly polemical interpretation and thereby refuses to let his audience off the hook. He takes the Bard on his own problematic terms and we, the groundlings, are left to decide what to take away from the experience.
Shaggy-bearded Pacino, his lined face a time-worn monument, makes for an intensely compelling Shylock. He doesn’t cater to PC trends and bend-over-backwards to soften Shylock or make him more “likable.” This is a fierce, irascible, angry, and resentful individual. He has plenty of reasons to be. Title cards at the film’s beginning create a historical context for the plot. In Venice circa 1596, Jews were prohibited by law to own property and lived under Christian lock-and-key in the city’s ghetto. Thus, lending money at interest provided one of their few means of self-support, since “usury” was against Christian law. Shylock is one of these much maligned money-lenders. A prologue shows Shylock spit on by Antonio, the play’s Christian counterpart, the titular Merchant of Venice.
Shylock looms large in our collective imagination, but revisiting the play reinforces how small his part actually is. So who is the main character? Portia? Bassanio? The merchant of the title? They seem vacuous and insignificant next to Shylock’s personal drama. Can it be true, as Bloom posits, that Shylock must be played as a comic villain for the play to work? I’m not convinced.
Here Shylock is human, certainly, and to a certain degree sympathetic. Pacino’s performance is admirably restrained; he plays his character close-to-the-chest and chooses strategic moments to let loose his fury. And when he does, watch out. Pacino’s passionate reading of Shylock’s famous speech (and one of the most famous in literature) is wrenching and revelatory, all the more for Pacino’s relatively understated delivery. “If you prick us, do we not bleed?” has become a go-to rallying cry for all victims of prejudice and oppression; but Pacino doesn’t say the words like he’s reading them off stone tablet cue cards. Shylock’s wounded pride and bitter resentment come through. In some ways I was reminded of Pacino’s equally low-simmer approach to playing Michael Corleone. By the time of the climactic trial scene, it’s clear that Shylock has been stewing in his hatred too long; compassion has been wrung from him through years of abuse, bigotry, and persecution. He demands his bond with chilling resolve. There’s no scenery chewing here.
Though Shylock is the source of the play’s controversy, and its most memorable character, Radford’s film brings the other characters into clear relief. Joseph Fiennes acquits himself well as Bassanio, the one-time playboy, now smitten suitor to Portia and catalyst for the play’s events. Fiennes smolders well; recalling his earthy and passionate Will from Shakespeare in Love from a few years before.
The object of Bassanio’s affection, Portia, is played by relative newcomer, Lynn Collins. Her Pre-Raphaelite beauty, easy command of the language, and knack for timing, both dramatic and comedic, all mark her as a star of tomorrow. She impressively avoids the potential pitfalls of the play’s penultimate trial scene (where Portia impersonates a young male lawyer) by sidestepping any arch postmodern self-awareness: she doesn’t wink at the audience or strain for effect. She convinces.
And, as a 20-something male, I confess she’s not hard to look at.
Jeremy Irons is one of the best actors working today — his performance in Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers will always haunt me — and here he manages to “flesh out,” ahem, a character with whom it is typically impossible to sympathize, Antonio. Irons has aged wonderfully. His face, like Pacino’s, communicates a sense of history and consequent world-weariness, and his rich voice delivers Shakespeare’s words in a way both natural and poetic, conversational and elevated. Antonio is flawed (the guy’s an unapologetic bigot), but is also a loyal, genuinely besotted, friend to Bassanio. Despite his drawbacks, he’s an effective foil to Shylock.
Apart from the performances, the movie looks great. Of course, Venice, a crumbling dream city, just has to be to look great. The costumes are worn, lived-in. The actors’ pasty faces and unkempt hair suggest the absence of indoor plumbing. Scenes have the dramatic chiaroscuro appropriate to a dim, candle-lit world. Jocelyn Pook’s score is atmospheric and as effectively time-bound as the material itself.
Speaking of time-bound, it’s worth mentioning that the audience with whom I saw this movie collectively gasped when Antonio demands Shylock’s conversion to Christianity as part of his penance. I have little doubt that the original Elizabethan audience cheered. Times change. And Shakespeare is still relevant, still resonant, still frustrating. We may not always like what he has to say (if we’re arrogant enough to assume we know what he’s saying), but there’s no doubt that Shakespeare’s genius is too palpable to be dismissed.
For that reason alone this movie is worth seeing. If you’re a Shakespeare fan, see it. If you’re a Pacino fan, see it. But be prepared to leave unsatisfied, rankled, and scratching your head. I think that’s a compliment to the production.
Shylock: Al Pacino
Antonio: Jeremy Irons
Bassanio: Joseph Fiennes
Portia: Lynn Collins
Jessica: Zuleikha Robinson
Gratiano: Kris Marshall
Lorenzo: Charlie Cox
Nerissa: Heather Goldenhersh
Launcelot Gobbo: Mackenizie Cook
Salerio: John Sessions
Here’s the official trailer:
Here’s a portion from the Trial scene: