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Sony Pictures Classics

Official Site

Director: Michael Radford

Producers: Cory Brokaw, Michael Cowan, Barry Navidi, Jason Piette

Written by: Michael Radford

Cast: Al Pacino, Jeremy Irons, Joseph Fiennes, Lynn Collins, Zuleikha Robinson


The Merchant Of Venice is—or at least originally was—a comedy, but you’d never guess from Michael Radford’s mournful adaptation. Perhaps flattening Shakespeare’s most controversial play into a drama is a necessary step to dealing with the play’s much-discussed anti-Semitic elements, but did the results have to be quite this flat? In a passage cut from Radford’s adaptation, minor character Gratiano notes: “There are a sort of man whose visages... do a willful stillness entertain/With purpose to be dress’d in an opinion—Of wisdom, gravity, profound conceit.” So too Radford’s movie.

In gaining funding, Radford and his team of producers undoubtedly had to figure out what to do with the play’s anti-Semitism (an element so renowned that Israeli authorities were reported, in Tony Horwitz’s Baghdad Without A Map, to search the luggage of those bringing copies into the country). Solution: Transform a play about the notorious Shylock (Pacino) into a play about why Shylock has every right to be pissed off. Transforming an anti-Semitic play into a play about anti-Semitism: No doubt that’s how everyone involved thinks of it, though Shakespeare’s play is weirder and more troubling than that. All the dialogue where Shylock gives his reasons for anger—melodramatically shown in an opening series of visual insults against him—is from Shakespeare himself. Yet this is still a play where, at least in original conception, the forced conversion of a Jew to Christianity is viewed as a good, happy thing. (Radford, understandably, transforms this element in particular into tragedy.)

Pacino is, surprisingly, impeccable. Instead of his customary scenery-chewing antics (perfectly entertaining in their own right), his delivery is largely subdued, his vocal inflection pitched somewhere between Sesame Street’s Grover and the carefully separated syllables of someone speaking a second language. It’s his best performance in years, and Jeremy Irons, as Antonio, also emerges from performances in recent films like Dungeons & Dragons and The Time Machine to be totally compelling as the play’s somewhat unwilling protagonist. Even Joseph Fiennes—similarly involved in unwise projects since emerging on the landscape with Shakespeare In Love seven years ago—manages not to strain too far out of his league. Add superb production values (the film was largely shot on location in Venice, and the frescoes and canals add incalculable interest), and the whole thing stacks up as a fairly decent adaptation.

And yet. Radford, a journeyman director who’s graduated from the BBC for some 20 years now, has yet to emerge with a distinctive style or vision, and has stubbornly eluded commercial success. Instead he produces bewildering stuff like B. Monkey and the occasional art-house success like Il Postino (i.e., Miramax gets warmed up for breaking foreign film USA gross records) without any apparent connective threads. Watching The Merchant Of Venice is an exercise in seeing why Radford remains an obscure commodity. There’s a leaden touch like Portia’s speech about her dead dad’s unwanted influence over her life, with the old man glaring down from a portrait dead-center of the frame. For all his re-arranging of the text, Radford is not a bold Shakespearean interpreter, and wholesale re-invention—like Olivier refashioning the climactic battle of Henry V as a centerpiece, not a side-note—is beyond him. And while he’s perfectly capable of intelligently censuring and annotating the text, truly bringing it to life is beyond him.

—Vadim Rizov

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