Joseph Fiennes……….. Bassanio
Mackenzie Crook………..Lancelot Gobbo
“I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison us, do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that.” -Shylock
Shakespeare has been translated to the screen with varying degrees in modern times. Brilliant adaptations such as Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V, Julie Taymor’s Titus and Richard Loncraine’s Richard III have given audiences a wonderful chance to see the Bard’s works on screen in very accessible films. Even more teenage fair such as Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo+Juliet, O, and 10 Things I Hate About You attempted to bring Shakespeare to the youth market, the latter two even dropping iambic pentameter in order to establish a wider audience. A Thousand Acres, Love’s Labor’s Lost and A Midsummer Night’s Dream all failed to find an audience as none were very entertaining. Shakespeare is a type of measuring stick by which many filmmakers judge themselves. He is regarded as perhaps the greatest playwright in history and many film makers want to be able to place their own stamp on his works by bringing them to new audiences.
The latest to try and do so is director Michael Radford with his adaptation of The Merchant of Venice. Venice tells the story of two friends, Antonio played by Jeremy Irons and Bassanio played Joseph Fiennes. Antonio is a wealthy merchant that is weighted down by his business ventures. He is successful, but his ventures bring him no joy. The only happiness he has in the world is the time he spends with friends that he keeps; especially Bassanio. The man is a free spirit that owes Antonio quite a bit of money, but the merchant cares not for Bassanio’s nature brings him much delight.
Recently Bassanio has learned of a woman named Portia (Lynn Collins). Portia is a rare beauty, and is having a sort of lottery for her affections. Her father’s will states that she will have a contests with three small caskets; one is made of gold, one of silver and one of lead. Each casket will be adorned with a riddle and the suitor that picks the casket containing the visage of fair Portia will be wed to her. Bassanio wants to partake in the contest, but cannot show up as a pauper. Only Antonio has no money to give him, as his business ventures have stretched his finances threadbare. En lieu of actual money, Antonio pledges to use what credit he has in the city.
Enter Shylock, played by Al Pacino. In 16th Century Venice, Jews were persecuted and forced to live in a walled ghetto within the city. They were not able to own land, but did make livings as money lenders. Pacino’s Shylock is a man who makes his living this way. He, much like Antonio, has prospered through hard, but is a man who is without happiness as he lives in a world that hates him. Antonio and Bassanio make a deal with Shylock for 3000 ducats, and as a sign of good faith, Antonio agrees to give Shylock a pound of his flesh if he does not repay the loan in three months.
So Bassanio goes off to find his true love and Antonio waits for his ships to come in to pay back Shylock. In the mean time, Shylock is dealt a painful blow as his daughter (Zuleika Robinson) elopes with a Christian friend of Bassanio’s named Lorenzo (Charlie Cox). Antonio is then forced to go on his agreement with Shylock as his financial ventures in the New World collapse. Pacino becomes the picture of vengeance as Shylock focuses his hate for all Christians by demanding his payment of flesh from Antonio. As Bassanio is about to try for the hand of his love, his friend is arrested and may have to die for this love.
The Merchant of Venice has not received the cinematic treatments with the frequency of other Shakespeare works, even though it is a very popular play. The reason is that the Shylock character has been perceived in the past as a very Anti-Semitic character, but in the hands of director Michael Radford and Al Pacino becomes a full fledged character of both rage and sympathy. Indeed the entire production takes place in a completely fleshed out world and at no time does it seem to be confined to a “stage” as other adaptations have tended to.
In fact of all the modern Shakespearean adaptations, this is the best film for simply being able to present the world convincingly that it was originally intended for historically. Title cards and an introductory sequence at the beginning of the movie establish the social climate for Jews in 16th Century Venice. The Jews are shown with red hats that they are forced to where in public so they cannot blend in with other citizens. The Jewish community’s ghetto looks much more decrepit than the mansions of Portia and Antonio. Radford should be commended for presenting Shakespeare in a visual way as to make the film very easy to understand to a layman audience.
Pacino’s portrayal of Shylock is ranks with Ian McKellen’s Richard III and Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V as one of the best Shakespearean performances ever. Shylock goes from just being a two dimensional villain to a sympathetic man who loses his family and has only revenge to keep him going. Shylock’s “Prick us do we not bleed?” speech is a showstopper. Pacino avoids his tendencies to chew up scenery and simply gives his best performance since Michael Mann’s Heat.
The rest of cast is just as memorable. Jeremy Irons, Joseph Fiennes, and Lynn Collins are all perfectly cast in their roles. Collins is radiant on screen and gives her roles an appropriate playfulness for one of Shakespeare’s smartest heroines. Jeremy Irons is solemn and wrings every bit of character out of this role. Joseph Fiennes is able to make Bassanio very likable in a role where he could have come off as aloof and too free spirited to be able be related to.
Overall, The Merchant of Venice is one of the best adaptations to come to the screen. It is at once a comedy, a tragedy, a romance, a revenge tale, and a look at social injustice. Hats off to film makers for being able to balance all of these elements and bring forth a very satisfying and engrossing movie experience.
The DVD transfer is a very sharp image which brings out the wonderful art direction of the film. Colors are bright and decadent in the halls of Portia’s mansion and then muted on many of the city exteriors accordingly. The film is presented in a nice Widescreen anamorphic 2.35:1.
The English (Dolby Digital 5.1) track is nice, but the film does not have any big action sequences or huge explosions to really judge the surround sound. The score for the film is nicely balanced and at no time does it seem that dialogue is inaudible in any way.
SPECIAL FEATURES: Commentary by Michael Radford and Lynn Collins, Behind-the-Scenes Making-Of Featurette.
There aren’t too many extras on the disc. While the features that are there are nice enough, the disc cant compare to other titles, such as the two-disc treatment that Fox gave Titus. Also, it should be noted that the disc does not feature English subtitles. While not a big deal usually, it would have been nice to able to turn on the subtitles in portions of the film where the language was really “thick”.
The Commentary: The commentary on the film is a win/lose situation as it features Director Michael Radford and the film’s female lead Lynn Collins. Radford’s portion of the commentary is quite as nice as he’s able to illustrate the pains he went through to be able to make the film entertaining, but also give it a feel of being as historically accurate as possible. He goes into detail about the dress of the times and is candid about how wonderful the extras were in the film making process. Most apparently were simply people that lived in the Luxembourg area where the movie was filmed. One sequence is particularly funny as he explains how prostitutes in 16th Century were made by the government of the city to expose their breasts in public to make the city seem more masculine because apparently homosexuality was rampant at the time. I found this particularly amusing because the women playing prostitutes in the film were simply the wives of bankers and accountants that lived in the city.
Unfortunately Lynn Collins, while absolutely ravishing in the film, on this commentary track does not provide much insight. Her comments consist mostly of interrupting Radford to provide such stirring soliloquies as “There’s Al Pacino!” and “He’s Great!”. Although most of the best commentaries are the ones that consist of a conversation about the film in question between two or more people, it would seem that Jeremy Irons or Al Pacino would have been a better fit on this track.
Behind-the-Scenes Making-Of Featurette: This was surprisingly not just a self-congratulatory piece about how great everyone was in the film. The featurette is actually a nice look at how the adaptation to film is a good way to make the story easier to understand than the play could be originally. By not just focusing on the character who is in a speaking part, but by showing and focusing on those around the speaker, gives audiences insights into the motivations of others on screen. Also, film allows for cutaway scenes of a person’s inner thoughts so as to see what they are seeing as opposed to the stagnation of the stage.
Al Pacino also gives his thoughts on playing Shylock and why he agreed to play the part, even though he had turned it down several times before. He states that though Shakespeare wrote the part as Anti-Semitic, the screenplay by Radford gave the character such a three dimensional quality that he took the part. We should all be thankful he did.