Monday, February 2, 2009

Review: The Merchant of Venice

The Merchant of Venice (2004, Michael Radford)

For years no film adaptation of this Shakespear play had been attemtped. Once one understand what exactly goes on in the story, that becomes easy to understand. Set in 16th century Venice, which was then a powerful city state at the time, it tells an emotionally complex story that pits a Christian merchant, Antonio (Jeremy Irons) against a Jewish money lender, Shylock (Al Pacino) when the former discovers that he cannot repay the money lent as promised. The signed bond stated that if the correct amount could not be repaid, Shylock would take a pound of Antonio's 'fair flesh', but at no interest! Hey, hey!

The controversy stems from the cultural realities of the time. 16th century Venice, while not completing shunning off the Jewish community since they were able to make some kind of living, did for all intents and purposes segregate them and, to a great extent, thought of them as lesser people and lost souls in the eyes of the Christian God. Antonio took upon this behavior as well, much like his Christian bretheren. When his younger friend Bassanio (Joseph Fiennes) needs funds to travel by ship and win the heart of the wealthy and well brought up Portia (Lynn Collins), Antonio, given his current economic situation, knows he must ask help from the money lender Shylock. Awkward doesn't even begin to describe what must Antonio must be feeling.

Regardless of the controversies, this is from 2004 and it is assumed that audiences are mature enough to take in the story for what it is and are not prone to thinking the film is merely a medium for Anti-Semitism, even though such racist feelings carry heavy weight for several of the characters involved. I must say the movie is pretty good. The language is not quite what Shakespear put on paper. It's modernized somewhat for today's audiences, while still retaining a very classical feel to it. That will frustrate purists and relieve those who don't want to hear, or who would probably be lost with old English, so take it for what it's worth. I should say right now that I have not read this play from dear Bill Shakespear, but have read several others. I strongly believe it can be argued that the filmmakers pull off a fine job at making the dialogue digestible for modern audiences while avoiding any real butchering of the language. Perhaps if you have absolutely never read any literature featuring old English, then yes, you'll most likely be scratching your head at times. For those who have even a minimal amount of familiarity with such a language, the dialogue poses no threats. For me personally, the story was more than interesting enough to keep me occupied for 2 hours. The tension between Christians and Jews, which is the backdrop, and the subsequent reliance of Anotonio on Shylock when the former needs money to send his friend to find a wife, is fascinating. Things become really intriguing when news arrives from sea that all of Antonio's commercial ships (the earnings from which he planned to pay back Shylock with) have sunk. Classic Shakespear. An unlikely, almost ridiculous event has occured to propel the story forward, but the characters have been so well set up by then that the viewer doesn't care how preposterous the catalyst is. It's the developping interractions between the two opposing foes that really matter.

The acting is uniformally good. I've always liked Jeremy Irons, but I think Fiennes, Pacino and Lynn Collins are all better here. Several scenes invest in the blossoming love between Bassanio and Portia. Their story might not be as intriguing as the Antonio/Shylock plotline, but the dialogue is handled deftly by both younger stars and they act out wonderful scenes together. As actors, they are indeed a perfect match, not merely as characters in the story. Their scenes feature a decidedly different tone than those with Antonio and Shylock, but I was never distracted by that reality. Pacino gives a measured performance as Shylock and really brought the character to life. He is given some very poignant and difficult things to say, and, like the old pro that he is, he delivers in spades. The audience his challenged by the character of Shylock. The situation of the Jewish community in Venice is rather depressing, which would encourage viewers to sympathize with Pacino's role. And yet, when Shylock becomes exasperated (his daughter has run off with a Christian boy, and the general lack of respect for the Jews), he clearly behaves like a dastardly villain. One minute we kind of pity Shylock, the next moment we are repulsed by his thoughts. It's fascinating to watch unfold.

I, as well as most of you surely, have been to the theater before and know what to expect. I was eager to see how director Radford would translate the story from stage to film in the visual sense. The result is fairly competent I'd say. Nothing earth shattering is done in terms of camera movements, cinematography or editing. Each scene is set up more than competently enough to not only let each one play out for the sake of the narrative, but also to capture the facial expressions of the actors. I'm a bit on the fence as to whether facial expressions play such a significant role in theater, especially when you consider there are poeple sitting way in the back row. Film has the advantage of offering close ups, and therefore not only does the dialogue speak for itself, but so do the actor's faces. Radford understood this and uses this advantage nicely. Having spent a few days in Venice last summer, it was nice to recognize many of the locations, although that doesn't make the movie better. The mere fact that it takes place in gorgeous Venice makes it better!

If you are familiar with Shakespear and are curious about some of the many film adaptations that exist, I would certainly say that The Merchant of Venice is one you should add to your list.

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