January 13, 2005

The Merchant of Venice – A Movie Review

Pacino Gives The Bard A Tantalizing New Flavor
By Fred H. Arm
Set in the lavish era of 16th century Venice, Shakespeare’s most powerful play comes to bare in Michael Radford’s THE MERCHANT OF VENICE, which traces the interlocking lives of a captivating assortment of classic Shakespearean characters. Bassanio (Joseph Finnes) is the typical Elizabethan lover and aristocrat – young, impulsive, and romantic –whose lavish lifestyle has left him deep in debt and desperately in love with the fair Portia (Lynn Collins) of Belmont. Yet to win her hand, he must prove his mettle by not only raising money he does not have, but he must also correctly solve the riddle of matrimony bequeathed by Portia’s late father.

Desperate to win Portia as his bride, Bassanio employs the support of his closest friend Antonio (Jeremy Irons), a supposedly successful merchant also residing in Venice. However, with no word from his trading fleet, Antonio is a trifle short of resources and must use his credit to apply for a loan. Alas, this loan comes in the shape of Shylock (Al Pacino), a Jewish loan shark who, like the rest of his people, is compelled to live in a “ghetto” and has access to the city only during the daylight hours. Yet, all is not as it appears between Antonio and Shylock. Antonio has publicly insulted and denounced Shylock along with other Jews for their practice of usury (loaning money at exorbitant rates of interest). The desperate circumstances, along with the persecution of Jews at the time, have made the spiteful Shylock seize upon the opportunity to have Antonio in his debt.

The wily Shylock decides to offer his loan without interest; however, he demands a pound of actual flesh from Antonio if his loan is not repaid precisely on time. Confident that Bassanio will return his good fortune three times over, Antonio agrees to the bizarre terms.

As Bassanio travels to Belmont with Gratiano (Kris Marshall), to woo his beloved, other events unfold threatening to ruin his quest before it is fulfilled. Portia, in the company of her lady-in-waiting Nerissa (Heather Goldenhersh), has already been welcoming potential suitors, who at any moment might solve the mystery of her father’s legacy which decrees that she must marry the man who correctly chooses one of three special jewelry boxes.

Unexpectedly, Antonio’s several trade ships have been sunk and thus fail to produce any profit for him. And at about the same time, Shylock’s daughter Jessica (Zuleikha Robinson) impulsively elopes with Bassanio’s friend Lorenzo (Charlie Cox). In the process, she escapes with a fair amount of her father’s personal wealth. Shylock is devastated to the core, which causes him to obsess all his energy towards the repayment of the Antonio’s debt, seemingly desirous of exacting the ultimate retribution for a lifetime of discrimination by Antonio and people like him.

Upon hearing of his friend Antonio’s tragic set of circumstances, Bassanio leaves Belmont and rushes home to find a solution to Antonio’s predicament. However, before Bassanio can arrive home, the loan is declared in default by Shylock and the distraught and semi-deranged Shylock forcefully demands his pound of flesh from Antonio in order to fully satisfy his revenge.

The Duke (Anton Rodgers), the reigning power in the city, has called a legal expert to the court to proceed over these extraordinary hearings to ascertain whether Antonio is truly in default on his loan. Is the payment that Shylock is asking for justified? Can Bassanio return in time to save Antonio? In true Shakespearean fashion, all is not as it seems in a story wrought with morality, revenge, redemption, and love.

Al Pacino gives a magnificent performance, perhaps one of the finest of his long career. Everyone will be riveted during the court scene finale in front of the Duke. It has all the drama of the O.J trial, however, with much more flair, drama, tension, and outrage. Shakespeare is a genius in weaving deceptive and dramatic plots with hints of comedic relief and convoluted plots. We are at once outraged by the despicable treatment of Jews like Shylock and then repulsed by Shylock’s unmerciful demands for “a pound of actual flesh”.
Like most of Shakespeare’s plays, a great deal of the material is sadly diminished by the archaic way of expressions that leave much of the story to confusion and ambiguity. This film manages to bring more of the pretty boy look to Bassanio and his entourage, thus producing more of a Hollywood flow than traditional live plays. The director has timed the sequences quite expertly allowing the stream of drama to flow quite briskly and naturally without the usual tedium of Shakespeare’s dramas. To see Al Pacino’s masterful acting is by itself worth the price of admission.

Opens in the Bay Area June 14, 2005

Posted by fredarm at January 13, 2005 06:58 PM