If you thought Venice was a city of romance then prepare to have that view challenged, as Michael Radford transforms it into a dark, brooding labyrinth of corruption and seediness.
This is the first time Shakespeare’s play has been brought to the big screen, a chief reason for the delay being the sheer complexity of the plot. Even Orson Welles had to abandon his own Merchant of Venice for that very reason. Trying to condense the twists and turns of the Bard’s writing is tricky in itself, but the basic premise here is one of a wealthy merchant Antonio, for whom life seems to be a burden, taking out a loan to finance his dear friend Bassanio in pursuit of the rich and beautiful Portia.
Antonio is so confident of repaying his loan that he strikes a bargain with Jewish moneylender Shylock, whom he has derided in the past. The bond between the two goes as far as stating that Shylock can take a pound of Antonio’s flesh should the repayments falter, and the two enjoy’ an uncomfortable dinner to seal the agreement.
And wouldn’t you know it – Antonio’s ships are wrecked at sea, and a tense courtroom drama ensues. Shylock is vengeful till the end, while Bassanio and his entourage fight for Antonio’s life.
The film keeps much of Shakespeare’s original script, with Jeremy Irons speaking the first lines as Antonio, bringing with him the right measure of world weariness. In contrast, Joseph Fiennes is a vibrant Bassanio, longing to sail to Belmont in order to woo Portia (Lynn Collins). However, it’s when Shylock (Al Pacino) has his turn that the drama really takes hold.
Pacino is outstanding, his voice perfect in conveying Shylock’s put upon nature, and the niggling references to all his wealth (or “ducats” as he will often spit) are truly grating. For Shylock is the chewing gum on the boot of Venetian society, downtrodden, ridiculed and frequently wronged – and he lets everyone know about it. The scenes with Irons perfectly capture the Jew’s vitriolic rage and the merchant’s aloof, almost disinterested manner.
As the news comes of Antonio’s ruin Irons grows paler in complexion, Pacino brings Shylock’s inner strength to the core, and Fiennes, who has succeeded where many failed in a comedy of marriage caskets, finds his joy cut short and speeds back to Venice to help his friend. He is aided by servant and jester Lancelot (the wiry Mackenzie Crook) and his comrade Graziano (the mischievous Kris Marshall).
The courtroom scene is tense, with long, dramatic silences and examination of every furrow on Pacino’s face, every hair on his overgrown beard. He gives a nasty, single-minded performance – just as Shylock does in the play – intent on revenge over his enemy. Now just in case you haven’t read the play I won’t reveal the ending, but Antonio feels the tension enough to go even paler and faint!
The whole production is superb, from the dark evocation of the city – perhaps even a mite overdone – through to the lavish excesses of Portia’s Belmont estate. The music, too, is just right, Jocelyn Pook composing as if born in the 16th century, with fine countertenor singing from Andreas Scholl. Illuminating, too, is the use of silence, a commodity all too rarely employed in the cinema.
A few tiny things grate, but probably because they are as Shakespeare intended – the distance of Irons in the Merchant’s role, Portia’s continued pouting and the knowing nods and winks from Marshall’s Graziano. However these do not detract from what is a triumph for all concerned, hardly contemporary, but a first rate drama production, fed by Pacino in a role he was surely born to play.