It may be hard to believe The Merchant of Venice was originally classified as one of Shakespeare’s romantic comedies, given the troubling and dominant figure of Shylock, the wronged Jew. One can see remnants of the old moneylender as a devious sophist entrapping his honest Christian foes in a web of words. Even his famous “Hath not a Jew eyes?” speech, which now seems very poignant, is meant to be manipulative, for Shylock is constantly arguing his case for revenge. But for modern audiences, Shylock is a figure of pathos, and the play remains comic only in the technical sense, adhering to the classic dictum that tragedies end in death and comedies end in marriage.
In this film adaptation, Antonio (Jeremy Irons), the merchant of the title, has borrowed from the moneylender Shylock (Al Pacino) in order to help his good friend Bassanio (Joseph Fiennes) in his wooing of Portia (Lynn Collins). Even though Antonio has belittled Shylock in public to the point of spitting on him, Shylock agrees to the loan, on a condition: If Antonio reneges, he can extract from the merchant a literal pound of flesh. While most familiar with the play remember the loan, the ensuing trial when Antonio’s fortunes take a turn for the worse and Shylock’s attempt to collect his bloody due, it’s all meant to bracket the story of three pairs of young lovers, and a threat to be resolved before the happy ending.
Director and screenwriter Michael Radford has seriously redacted the play, as is customary in film adaptations of Shakespeare (the notable exception being Kenneth Branagh’s four-hour Hamlet), removes some of the anti-Semitic gibes of a few of the minor characters, and has attempted to blend the two plot threads by casting a low-key pall over most of the proceedings. But with Shylock as the main point of interest and empathy, the two stories never reach any sort of tonal cohesion. After Shylock has been banished, the final act — which, in its original form, is a charming denouement to the play’s romantic, comedic intent — here becomes a tedious anticlimax. But it’s a game attempt at tackling a problematic play and the performances are, for the most part, what make the film worth seeing. Pacino’s Shylock is a compelling presence, all resolve and coiled hatred, and his final humiliation is painful to watch. Irons plays Antonio with a world-weariness that makes him almost sympathetic, and Collins’ Portia, with the famed “quality of mercy” speech, makes reason sweetly appealing. Only Fiennes’ Bassanio disappoints, seeming more doltish than necessary. The film is uneven, but it’s probably the best that could be done in the post-Holocaust era. Shakespeare may be eternal, but times change, and this comedy, though no one dies, has become decidedly tragic.
Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), at 7 and 9:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Feb. 18 and 19, and at 4 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 20. Call 313-833-3237.
Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].