Friday, May 24, 2013

The Merchant of Venice (2004)

There's an old joke: Shakespeare's comedies aren't as much fun as his tragedies. His tragedies are filled with all the juicy stuff: murder, revenge, witches, assassinations, crazy people, etc. What was tragic and dramatic centuries ago often still has resonance we can relate to. Comedy, meanwhile, is more subjective; what was funny in Elizabethan England is not necessarily funny in 21st Century America.

Case in point, The Merchant of Venice. It's labeled a comedy among the Bard's work, and things work out happily for our main characters, but there's a very good reason why today's audiences might not be so inclined to laugh at it: it's horribly anti-Semitic and racist. Take the character of Shylock the money lender, the villain of the piece. He's a stereotypical Jewish caricature, a greedy, money-obsessed stock figure who literally wants a pound of flesh for a defaulted loan. When his daughter, who hates him, abandons him and steals his money, he laments the loss of both equally. He even dreams of money bags.  As the villain, he's meant to be humiliated and humbled, and we're to cheer his comeuppance.

But on the other hand, Shakespeare gives Shylock a number of dignified speeches where he lashes out at his mistreatment. In Act III Scene I, Shylock gets one of Shakespeare's greatest speeches in which he cries out against the prejudice toward Jews, the famous "If you prick us, do we not bleed?" monologue. I don't know whether Shakespeare himself was anti-Semitic or not, but it's safe to say he wrote at a time when that sentiment was strong, and he had his audience to consider. It might be more accurate to say his characters are anti-Semitic.

Michael Radford, who wrote and directed this 2004 adaptation, seems to realize the inherent problem with any modern version of the play, given how culturally sensitive and politically correct we as a society have become. Radford has re-envisioned the character of Shylock. Instead of a comic buffoon, Shylock is now a persecuted, tragic figure, undone by the prejudice and injustice around him as much as his own flaws.

On with the plot. In 16th century Venice, Bassanio (Joseph Fiennes) needs money to woo the fair Portia (Lynn Collins). He turns to his friend Antonio (Jeremy Irons), a merchant of some means but whose ships are all out to sea. To raise the money, the pair go to Shylock (Al Pacino). Shylock agrees to the loan at no interest, but should the loan default, he demands a vicious collateral: a pound of Antonio's flesh.

The film opens with text explaining the social position of Jews in Venice as well as footage demonstrating their persecuted status, including Jews being thrown into the canals by an angry crowd and Antonio spitting on Shylock (something referred to in the text but not shown). It's not pretty, and it goes a long way toward generating, if not sympathy, then definitely understanding of Shylock and why he behaves the way he does.

The strongest element Radford brings to the film is its period look. Simply put, it's astoundingly authentic, more so than any other Shakespeare adaptation (or almost any other period piece) I can think of, and the scope is amazing. From the costumes to settings, nothing looks out of place for the time period whether it's the big details or the small ones.

But by far, the best piece of the movie is Pacino's performance. It is something to behold; he's all over the place from coldly calculating to despair to fiery anger to humbled shame to sorrow. Even the stuff that was silly in the text (lamenting losing his daughter and money), Pacino makes it believable and palpable. His delivery of the aforementioned monologue stands as one of the best Shakespeare speeches I've ever seen on film. When he comes to collect Antonio's pound of flesh, you know he means it.

On the downside, by accentuating the tragedy of the villain, Radford defuses much of the play's  humor. Compared to Shylock's story, the rest of the play - pompous princes, a betrothal based on choosing the correct the chest, women disguised as boys, a missing ring, a masquerade - feels diminished and unimportant, especially when Shylock has Antonio strapped in a courtroom chair, shirtless, chest exposed for the knife.

That said, these portions of the film are helped by some good performances, especially those of Collins as Portia and Irons as Antonio. Collins, in a role originally intended for Cate Blanchett, proves to be just a cunning as Shylock at a key moment while Irons brings to the forefront a subtext often hinted at: Antonio is in love Bassanio, and he is in effect financing his own heartbreak.

Today's audience might find The Merchant of Venice one of the Bard's more difficult plays to swallow, if only because of its potentially more unsavory aspects, but this version does a fine job addressing those concerns and turning a farce into a compelling drama. Between Pacino's performance and the production design, it's worth a watch.

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