The Merchant Of Venice is a nasty bit of business
When director Michael Radford set out to film Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, he must have known he had a challenge on his hands. How can you make a play in which the villain suffers religious persecution and the hero is a bigot palatable to a contemporary cineplex audience? Radford (Il Postino) makes a valiant effort, providing much-needed historical context and luxuriating in a moral gray area where almost no one is truly innocent or guilty. But ultimately the film’s failure to choose sides feels more like a concession than a victory.
In Shakespeare’s play, Antonio (Jeremy Irons), a Christian merchant, borrows money from Shylock (Al Pacino), a Jewish moneylender, in order to help his friend Bassanio (Joseph Fiennes), who wishes to woo the beautiful and very wealthy Portia (Lynn Collins). Shylock agrees to lend Antonio the money but requests, in lieu of interest, a pound of Antonio’s flesh if he defaults on the loan. Believing that he can easily pay the debt after finalizing a few business ventures, Antonio agrees. Cue shipwrecks, and Antonio finds himself unable to repay his creditor.
Meanwhile, Portia is not allowed to choose her own husband. Instead, her late father has set up a test for her suitors. They must choose between three caskets—one made of gold, one made of silver, and one made of iron—one of which hold’s Portia’s portrait and the right to marry her. Bassanio chooses correctly, but when he finds out that Shylock has decided to literally collect his fleshy debt from Antonio, Bassanio rushes home to Venice—as does, unbeknownst to him, Portia, dressed as a man.
The convoluted plot is not likely to be a problem for anyone who’s paying money to see a Shakespeare film, but the depiction of Shylock as a greedy man who sees even his own daughter as a possession and the obvious bigotry of Antonio and the people of Venice in general toward Jews is a stickier proposition. In order to provide some historical perspective, Radford provides some background on the lives of Jews in 16th-century Venice. They were forced to live in a ghetto, had to wear red hats to identify themselves whenever they left that area, and were not allowed to own property. Many made their living through lending money and charging interest, an activity scorned by Venice’s Christians but desperately needed. At one point, Antonio walks through the moneylending area, and though he and Shylock have obviously had business dealings before, when Shylock attempts to address him Antonio spits in his face.
Thus Radford manages to make Shylock less of a cartoon villain than a man looking for justice in the wrong place. Fortunately Pacino proves an ally in that struggle, delivering a fierce but subtle performance and only giving in to his inner scene-chewer on occasion, most notably in the “If you prick us, do we not bleed?” speech.
In improving Shylock’s motivation, Radford takes away whatever heroic gloss attaches itself to Antonio, making him a rather pathetic figure. Antonio’s on-screen treatment of Shylock reeks of hypocrisy, but a hypocrisy born of weakness, not malice. Irons plays up this aspect, looking wan and skeletal in the role. Radford also highlights the homoerotic aspects of Antonio and Bassanio’s relationship, making Antonio seem hopelessly and romantically in love with the younger man, while Bassanio sees him as more of an overindulgent father than a lover. And Fiennes’ Bassanio is no more heroic than his friend, playing Bassanio as a feckless, trifling man who takes whatever he can get and then convinces himself he deserves it. In fact, the Venetians in general seem like a bunch of spoiled 16th-century frat boys, drinking, gambling, and screwing around while criticizing the Jews for being sinners.
It’s impressive that, while stripping the story of much of its good guy-vs.-bad guy momentum, that Radford is still able move the film along at a brisk pace and create some real tension in the final court scene. He does, however, misstep with some of the comedic elements. After all, The Merchant of Venice is, technically, a comedy, and the scenes in which a series of ridiculous suitors vie for Portia’s hand is supposed to bear that out. But in a film that focuses more on the darkness and complexities of the play, the embarrassingly stereotyped men—the cocky, sexually aggressive Morrocan prince (David Harewood) and the fey prince of Aragon (Antonio Gil-Martinez)—seem terribly out of place.
But the biggest problem is that, while Radford’s attempts to take the sheen off Antonio and Bassanio are effective, his attempts at humanizing Shylock fall short. We understand that Jews were persecuted, but Shylock’s bloodthirsty, vengefulness remains his main characteristic. In fact, with the exception of Portia, played luminously by relative newcomer Collins, there are no likable characters in the film. And that lack ultimately makes The Merchant of Venice intriguing to watch but difficult to enjoy.