The Merchant of Venice
R E V I E W   B Y   R I C H   C L I N E dir-scr Michael Radford
with Al Pacino, Jeremy Irons, Joseph Fiennes, Lynn Collins, Kris Marshall, Zuleikha Robinson, Charlie Cox, Heather Goldenhersh Mackenzie Crook, Ron Cook, John Sessions, Allan Corduner
release UK 3.Dec.04, US 29.Dec.04
04/Italy 2h18

A pound of flesh: Corduner and Pacino

pacino irons fiennes


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The Merchant of Venice Shakespeare's complicated story gets a strong cast, brilliant production design and beautiful writing and direction from Radford that draws out the cultural context of the period and the emotions in the story, set in 1596 Venice.

Bassanio (Fiennes) is obsessed with the lovely heiress Portia (Collins), but he needs money to win her hand. His trusted friend Antonio (Irons) loves him so much that he offers to help, but he has to borrow the money from despised Jewish loan shark Shylock (Pacino), who adds a cruel clause in the contract: If Antonio doesn't pay him back in time, Shylock can fulfil the debt with a pound of Antonio's flesh. Meanwhile, Bassanio's sidekicks Gratiano and Lorenzo (Marshall and Cox) fall for, respectively, Portia's handmaid (Goldenhersh) and Shylock's daughter (Robinson), adding wrinkles galore.

The play is a sprawling and even more complex romp, and Radford streamlines it expertly, getting to the heart of the matter instantly, and creating some very powerful scenes along the way. He also nicely draws out the strong racial tensions between Christians and Jews--we can feel the hatred and mistrust. Shylock's pivotal anti-discrimination speech is astonishingly strong here.

Pacino owns the entire film as Shylock--it's a remarkably controlled, layered, subtle performance that really breaks our hearts, which is especially notable since he's the villain of the piece! Everyone else adeptly portrays their characters, but they all feel like mere fluff around Shylock. So it's left to the cleverly shadowy direction, wonderful settings and engagingly tricky plot to keep us gripped for nearly two and a half hours. And that they do!

There are moments of real excitement, emotion and elaborate intrigue here, and Radford creates a strongly cinematic experience that allows the cast to create memorable characters--focussing on their faces rather than the Shakespearean text. The thorny courtroom scene is especially exciting. And the intriguing love between Bassanio and Antonio is beautifully portrayed without feeling contrived or cliched. This is a story about a shifting face-off between heartless greed and compassionate mercy. With a few love games--cross-dressing deceptions, desperate redemption--stirred in to spice it up. All that glitters certainly is not gold.

cert PG themes, innuendo, adult situations 28.Sep.04

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2004 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall