out of Five
Running time: 138
Enjoyable, well directed film with impressive production design and terrific performances from Irons and Pacino.
Surprisingly enough, The Merchant of Venice has never been filmed for the big screen before, despite being one of Shakespeare’s better known plays. Thanks to strong performances and impressive direction by Michael Radford, it’s fully deserving of a place alongside the better Shakespeare adaptations, making it a must-see for A Level English students everywhere.
The film is set in 16th century Venice, where Jews are publicly reviled as usurers and every other person on the street appears to be a topless whore. Joseph Fiennes plays Bassanio, a lovestruck Venetian who needs money in order to woo the rich heiress Portia (Lynn Collins, previously best known as “Attractive Girl” in 50 First Dates). His “friend” Antonio (Jeremy Irons) agrees to give him the money out of love (Radford makes the play’s subtext pretty explicit), but he has to borrow money from Jewish loan shark Shylock (Al Pacino) in order to do so.
The Original Pound Of Flesh
However, Shylock is still smarting from when Antonio spat at him in the street and he stipulates a particularly grisly clause to the contract: if Antonio cannot pay back the loan on time then Shylock can fulfil the debt with a pound of Antonio’s flesh.
Meanwhile, the film has some more light-hearted fun with Portia’s various suitors having to choose between a gold, silver and lead box in order to win her hand, as well as various other romances and a spot of cross-dressing, just for good measure.
The acting is very good (yes, even Joseph Fiennes) and Kris Marshall (from TV’s My Family) provides good comedy value as Gratiano, though Mackenzie Crook is sadly under-used as Gobbo. There’s also good support from the likes of John Sessions and Gregor Fisher as Antonio’s friends.
As for Jeremy Irons, he gives one of his best performances as Antonio – his scenes are extremely moving. However, the film really belongs to Al Pacino, who gives a blistering performance that is both chilling and heart-breaking in equal measure; the key speech about racism (“If you prick us, do we not bleed?”) and the stunning courtroom confrontation are extremely powerful.
Time For Al To Chew The Scenery
Thankfully for Pacino fans though, he still finds room for the odd Shouty Al moment, such as his delivery of the line, “If you deny me, FIE UPON YOUR LAWWWWWWS!”
The film looks terrific, thanks to impressive location and set design work and Radford handles the material beautifully, although the comedy cross-dressing sequences seem a little anti-climactic coming straight after the dramatic courtroom scenes. (Then again, that’s Shakespeare’s fault, really.).
In short, this is a well made, beautifully acted film that remains gripping throughout its lengthy running time. Recommended.