The Merchant of Venice

No one is eager to perform “The Merchant of Venice” anymore for fear of being labeled anti-Semitic. The play itself, set in the time period in which it was written, probably accurately reflects the way Jews were treated, and of course modern audiences understand that some of its elements are, shall we say, dated. Still, if a theater were TOO excited about producing the play, people would get suspicious, the same as you’d raise an eyebrow if someone were really keen on doing “Springtime for Hitler.” So new stagings are always accompanied by director’s notes disclaiming the play’s contemptible undertones: “The play is a brilliant examination of justice and mercy, blah blah blah, even though Shakespeare kinda hated the Jews, blah blah blah, we don’t endorse the anti-Semitism, we’re being forced to do the play, someone has us at gunpoint, blah blah blah.”

So I admire Michael Radford (“Il Postino”) for adapting and directing this new film version, for taking the stand that the play IS a brilliant examination of justice and mercy, and that those qualities outweigh whatever anti-Semitic themes are to be found (many of which can be downplayed or eliminated anyway, through careful adapting, directing and acting). There is no sense in throwing the baby out with the bathwater: “The Merchant of Venice” is a not a perfect play, but it is a good one. And the same can be said for Radford’s version of it.

He begins, of course, with title cards reminding the viewer that “intolerance of Jews was a fact of life” in Venice in 1596, in case anyone unfamiliar with the play’s history has wandered into the theater. From there the adaptation is fairly straightforward, with Shakespeare’s dialogue intact except for some streamlining elisions.

Shylock (Al Pacino) is a wealthy Jewish merchant and moneylender to whom Antonio (Jeremy Irons) goes for a loan when his young friend Bassanio (Joseph Fiennes) needs money to woo his beloved (and wealthy) Portia (Lynn Collins). Bassanio, young and foolish, has no good credit left. Antonio, his mentor and bosom chum — and the film suggests their chumminess was indeed bosomy — is older and more responsible, and has ships at sea this very moment carrying out his business and bringing him back income.

However, Antonio and Shylock have a history, the former frequently spitting on the latter when they meet in the street. The loan is therefore not to be carried out between friends, but is strictly a business arrangement. Shylock insists on an eccentric contract: If Antonio cannot repay the 3,000-ducat loan by a certain date, Shylock shall be permitted to cut off a pound of his flesh as payment. Knowing his ships will return with plenty of money from their pursuits, Antonio agrees to the weird terms, seeing it as nothing more than a crazy old Jew being odd just for the sake of being odd.

And then the ships fail, and Antonio is broke.

I leave it for those who have not seen or read the play to discover what happens next — it really is suspenseful, if you don’t already know the outcome, and Radford plays up that aspect marvelously — and move onto the subject of Bassanio and Portia. She is one of Shakespeare’s many heroines who dress up as men, miraculously fooling everyone they meet, in order to perform works of spying or good deeds. In Portia’s case, it’s the latter, and that’s where I wish Radford had cast someone more charismatic and powerful than Lynn Collins, who is lovely but an unremarkably actress. Her chemistry with Joseph Fiennes is practically zero. (Cate Blanchett was originally cast in the role, and I have to believe she’d have been exponentially more powerful.)

As Shylock, Al Pacino has the most noticeable role, if not the one with the most screen time. He’s good, too, a mix of typical Al Pacino over-the-top “Hoo-ahh!”-ism and down-to-earth real acting. In his hands, Shylock is both sympathetic and despicable, often simultaneously, as he bemoans his persecution, misses his daughter Jessica (Zuleikha Robinson) who has run off with a Christian man … but also misses his money, and makes things infinitely worse for himself by insisting on fulfilling the macabre terms of the contract. He’s a contradictory character, which is another reason the play isn’t performed much: It’s hard for an actor to play the role believably. Pacino manages it.

Radford’s direction is swift and confident, and 16th-century Italy looks beautiful, a near-perfect re-creation of the sumptuous costumes, streets and manners of the time. There is, at last, a definitive film version of this play, flawed in parts but mostly timeless.

B (2 hrs., 5 min.; R, for a gaggle of naked breasts -- still kind of an absurd rating, since there's no sex, violence or profanity in the film.)