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.
Take a pal and pay full price for both tickets.
Itís worth a full-price ticket.
Itís worth a matinee ticket.
Wait for video rental.
Check out the video from the library, if you must.
While we would never encourage anyone to destroy a video...