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4 reviews, 13 user ratings

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Merchant of Venice, The (2004)
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by Scott Weinberg

"As a Jewish guy, I guess I'm supposed to dislike this play. Well, sorry."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2004 TORONTO FILM FESTIVAL: I'll try to keep this short, as I'm hardly any sort of expert on the works of William Shakespeare. I do, however, know all about the power and majesty of the movies, and that it takes a special sort of filmmaker to translate Shakespeare's tales into something palatable to a modern-day audience. Orson Welles knew how to do it, Kenneth Branagh knew how to do it, heck, even Mel Gibson hit one of the Bard's babies right out of the park! And you can now add Michael Radford to that list, as his adaptation of "The Merchant of Venice" speaks exceedingly well to a modern-day audience, anti-semitism and all.

Best known as the director of 1995's excellent The Postman, Michael Radford has never shied away from difficult adaptations. (His 1984 movie version of Orwell's 1984 is brilliant and harrowing.) And apparently it takes a filmmaker of some bravery to approach The Merchant of Venice, a play that's generally seen as the Bard's most controversial piece.

And speaking of controversial, Radford risks ruffling a lot more feathers by casting the generally bellicose Al Pacino in the role of Jewish money-lender Shylock. (Some would say you need an obvious Jew for this role, while others simply demand a good actor - and Pacino surely is the latter if not the former.)

Adapted and re-imagined with a careful craftsmanship and a stunning eye for detail, Radford's The Merchant of Venice should prove a worthwhile experiment to the countless Shakespeare aficionados out there...and a very welcome set of crib notes for students unable to decipher Shakespeare's prose. (I'm of the opinion that the best Shakespeare adaptations actually help students to appreciate the Master; at first approach his plays can be extremely intimidating.)

Even the most inexperienced college student knows the Merchant's tale: Bassanio needs to borrow 3,000 bucks from his good pal Antonio in order to woo the stunningly beautiful Portia. Antonio's a fairly wealthy guy, but most of his fortune is presently tied up in a variety of overseas expeditions. In an effort to help his friend win the heart of an unbelievable babe, Antonio heads on over to the Jewish side of town, where he strikes an unlikely bargain with money-lender Shylock: Antonio will get the 3,000 bucks, but if he doesn't pay it back within three months, Shylock gets to yank a pound of flesh from Antonio's body. The Jew likes this arrangement because, well, most citizens of 16th century Venice treat the Jewish people like dirt. So Shylock is hoping that Antonio has trouble with the debt; he'd rather slice the bigot up just a bit. Just a pound's worth.

Obviously there are complications and divergences galore, most of which involve Shylock's daughter, Bassanio's best pal, and Portia's giggling girlfriend. Many of the stock Shakespearoids are here: women dressing as men (and proving themselves infinitely smarter in the process), massive speeches about the angst of being human, and a circuitous (though clearly coherent, if you're paying attention) route through all the insanity. If you've just been assigned The Merchant of Venice for school, this film should be your first stop...before you read the play; not instead of reading the play.

Radford has enlisted a trio of top performers for his leading men, and Pacino keeps his outspoken nature to an enjoybale minimum. Sure, he gets to rave and rage through the classic "If you prick us..." speech, but the actor gives a nuanced and quite excellent performance, and one that reminds us of the Pacino we respect and admire - as opposed to the Pacino we sometimes poke a little fun at. Also on board is the ever-stately Jeremy Irons as Antonio and the always-excellent Joseph Fiennes as Bassanio. Toss in some great supporting work from newcomers Kris Marshall and Mackenzie Crook, and you're looking at a all-you-can-eat buffet of classical acting of the highest order.

And whomever it was that found the heart-crackingly gorgeous Lynn Collins for the part of Portia deserves a big raise and a corner office. The young lady's acting prowess is matched only by her stunning good looks...and for a red-blooded male movie critic, there's nothing better than a gorgeous gal with acting chops like Lynn has. Wowie.

I'm sure that this adaptation will be met with a few jeers from those who like to label things as anti-this or anti-that. Yes, there are some unpleasant things said and done in this play, things that Jewish folks might not appreciate all that much. But by my estimation, the retention of this material earns Radford even more respect. To 'minimize' the anti-semitism found in this play would be to cheapen the work of the world's finest playwright, and if you're going to do that - you shouldn't even bother making a new adaptation in the first place. These are attitudes from an earlier and less understanding era, but that doesn't mean they should be swept under the rug and forgotten. Those who refuse to learn from the past are destined to repeat it, and all that jazz.

Due to its controversial nature and unpleasant approach towards its Jewish characters, "The Merchant of Venice" is one of the Bard's most infrequently adapted works. Well, compared to "Hamlet," "Macbeth," and "Romeo," anyway. But it's quite reassuring to see a filmmaker approach the material with the objectivity and respect it deserves. Plus anything that can help to make William Shakespeare more accessible to a modern audience is a good thing, period.

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originally posted: 09/14/04 01:18:05
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2004 Toronto Film Festival. For more in the 2004 Toronto Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

1/19/08 Pamela White very good adaptatio of Shkespeare 5 stars
8/11/06 amar Its nice 3 stars
5/20/06 Matt Levandowski strikingly good adaptation of shakespeare 4 stars
11/17/05 Childs I was disappointed that Radford didn't take the Shakespearean audience into consideration. 4 stars
11/14/05 Kate Bush good adaption 4 stars
7/06/05 Taylor Fladgate Awesome! A great adaptation. 5 stars
4/02/05 malcolm i'm a shakespeare and pacino fan. how could i not like it? 4 stars
3/04/05 diana Superb performancs by all, Al Pacino was just wonderful, the scenery was devine art. 5 stars
2/10/05 David Bennett Interesting angle...nicely done film 4 stars
2/03/05 KRISHA JEANS I LIKE IT..... 4 stars
1/03/05 UMER great acting by everyone 5 stars
11/11/04 Serena Excellent adaptation and a must see 5 stars
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  29-Dec-2004 (R)
  DVD: 10-May-2005



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