Saturday, September 12, 2015

Stubs - The Merchant of Venice

The Merchant of Venice (2004) Starring: Al Pacino, Jeremy Irons, Joseph Fiennes, Lynn Collins, Zuleikha Robinson. Directed by Michael Radford.  Screenplay by Michael Radford. Based on the play The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare (London, ca. 1596-97, published 1600). Produced by Cary Brokaw, Barry Navidi, Jason Piette, Michael Lionello Cowan. Run Time: 127 minutes. Great Britain, Italy, Luxembourg, and United States. Color. Comedy, Drama

William Shakespeare has been the source, either directly or indirectly, for many films. It seems that whenever Hollywood can’t think of something new or doesn’t have a sure-fire sequel in its back pocket, they will turn to Shakespeare’s work. Since the French made a version of Hamlet in 1900 starring Sarah Bernhardt, Shakespeare’s plays have been made into 410 feature-length films and television productions, making him far and away the most filmed author in any language.

As an example, The Merchant of Venice has been made several times, including versions British film versions in 1916 and 1922; British television versions in 1947, 1955, 1972, 1973, 1980, 1996, 2001; a Canadian TV adaptation in 1976, a New Zealand film in 2002 and the version we’ll be reviewing made in 2004 and starring Al Pacino and Jeremy Irons. This is not only the first time Hollywood has attempted to make a movie from this particular play, it is the first film version made in the sound era.

Why has this play lagged behind others of Shakespeare’s works to make it to the big screen? No doubt it is the perceived anti-Semitic message of the play. It will come as no surprise that Jews have not been treated well in Europe and the same was very true back in Elizabethan England, when this play was written. At the time, Jews were often depicted on screen as caricatures with hooked noses and red wigs and usually depicted as usuries, people that loan money with interest.

In The Merchant of Venice, Shylock (Al Pacino) is not only portrayed as an avaricious money-lender, but also as sadistic and vengeful; not that he didn’t have reasons for disliking his treatment by Venetian society and at the hands of Antonio (Jeremy Irons), the Merchant, in particular. In Venice, Jews were forced to live in a Ghetto at night, could not marry out of their faith, had to wear red hats when milling with the Christians and were generally treated little better than rats. Adding insult to injury, the first interaction we’re shown between Shylock and Antonio is Antonio spitting in Shylock’s face.

Antonio (Jeremy Irons) is the Merchant of Venice.

Antonio is an ambitious merchant with four trade ships in route to four different destinations. With his money tied up, he has to use his credit to subsidize his good friend Bassanio’s (Joseph Fiennes) pursuit of Portia of Belmont (Lynn Collins). It is Bassanio who finds Shylock and names Antonio as the loan’s guarantor.

While Shylock is reluctant at first to make the loan, he does agree to give Bassanio the 3,000 ducats he requires, but will do so at no interest. However, there is one catch. If Antonio is unable to repay the loan amount by a specified date, Shylock can take from Antonio one pound of his flesh. Feeling assured that his fortunes and cash flow will improve upon his ships return to Venice, Antonio agrees to Shylock’s terms. With the money he needs, Bassanio and his friend, Gratiano (Kris Marshall), set out for Belmont.

Shylock (Al Pacino) makes the loan, but there is one catch.

Portia, whose now deceased father has left her a fortune, must also deal with one other of her father’s stipulations from his will, how suitor will win her hand. Based on his interpretation of a slogan about each of three caskets, one gold, one silver and one lead, each suitor will have the opportunity to choose the casket containing a portraiture of Portia. If the suitor chooses correctly, he will win Portia’s hand in marriage and the wealth that comes with her.

One of Portia's (Lynn Collins) suitors is the Prince of Morocco (David Harewood).

A fair maiden, Portia has several suitors. The first is the Prince of Morocco (David Harewood) who chooses the gold casket. The second suitor, the frumpy and older Prince of Aragon (Antonio Gil), chooses the silver one. Both are wrong. When Bassanio arrives he correctly chooses the lead casket and wins Portia’s hand. Gratiano falls in love with Portia’s handmaid, Nerissa (Heather Goldenhersh), and they plan to marry as well.

Bassanio (Joseph Fiennes) chooses the right casket.

Meanwhile, back in Venice, all of Antonio’s ships are stranded and when it comes time to pay back Shylock, he doesn’t have the money. Some of Shylock’s anger towards Antonio is really towards Christians in general after his daughter, Jessica (Zuleikha Robinson), has eloped with Lorenzo (Charlie Cox) and taken with her a substantial amount of his fortune.

Shylock's daughter, Jessica (Zuleikha Robinson), elopes and takes some of his money with her.

When a letter reaches Bassanio notifying him of Antonio’s troubles, he and Gratiano plan to return to Venice, but not before each is married. As a sign of their union, Portia gives Bassanio a ring as a symbol of their love and swore him not to remove it, sell it or give it away. Nerissa does the same with Gratiano. Portia also gives Bassanio 6,000 Ducats to repay Antonio’s debt to Shylock. Portia and Nerissa then leave to seek advice from her cousin, Bellario, a lawyer.

In the court of the Duke of Venice (Anton Rodgers), final resolution of Antonio’s debt is being discussed. Shylock is there, waiting to take his literal pound of flesh. While the Duke wants to save Antonio, he doesn’t think he can interfere with a contract. Shylock refuses Bassanio’s offer of 6,000 ducats to settle the debt, but Shylock is adamant that he is due the pound of flesh stipulated in the loan contract.

Shylock wants his pound of flesh from Antonio.

Helpless to do anything, the Duke allows the issue to be settled by a new arrival, a man (actually Portia in disguise) who claims to be Balthazar, a doctor of the law. With him is his court clerk, who is Nerissa in disguise. As reference, Balthazar has a letter from Bellario.

Balthazar (Lynn Collins), a doctor of law, comes to Antonio's legal aid.

Balthazar asks for Shylock to show mercy, but Shylock will have none of it. Shylock is allowed to take his pound of flesh, but is warned that if any blood should spill then Shylock will be charged and lose his lands and goods under Venetian law. She further tells him the same will be true if he takes anything other than an exact pound, which Shylock has brought his own scale to measure. Anything above or below that amount will result in similar punishment for Shylock.

Feeling defeated, Shylock decides to take the offer of payment, but now Portia tells him that he has already forfeited that in open court and cannot change his mind now. She then cites a Venetian law in which Shylock as a Jew, and therefore considered an alien, has attempted to take the life of a Venetian citizen. As such he has forfeited his fortune, half to the government and half to Antonio and that his life now lies in the balance up to the discretion of the Duke.

The Duke immediately pardons Shylock and Antonio offers his half for Shylock to use for the rest of his life, provided that it be left on his death to Jessica and Lorenzo. The Duke will forgive the government’s share as well, as long as Shylock converts to Christianity and leaves his entire estate to Jessica and Lorenzo. Shylock accepts his status, but it is obvious that it causes him real distress.

Neither Bassanio nor Gratiano recognize their wives, even when they speak with them. Bassanio offers to pay Balthazar (Portia) for his help. While she originally rebuffs the offer, she does ask for Bassanio’s gloves and for the ring. He gives her his gloves, but doesn’t want to part with ring until Antonio talks him into it. Gratiano likewise parts with his ring, which he also promised Nerissa never to remove, giving it to the court clerk for their part in resolving the debt.

The two couples, Portia and Bassanio; Gratiano (Kris Marshall) and Nerissa (Heather Goldenhersh).

Back at Belmont, Portia and Nerissa make a show of asking their husbands about their missing rings and have they’ve broken their vows before revealing that they were the lawyer and clerk in disguise. In the end, Antonio is informed that three of his ships were not stranded after all and have returned.

Despite the dramatic moments, the humiliation of Shylock and threats of mutilation, the play is considered a Comedy. And while it has moments of whimsy and romance, it is obvious that the definition of comedy has been changed since this play was first performed in and about 1598.

This film was not a success either at the boxoffice or with critics. On a budget of about $30 million, it only made a little over $21 million worldwide. Critics gave generally positive but not overwhelming reviews.

The acting is for the most part very good throughout and the three male leads: Al Pacino, Jeremy Irons and Joseph Fiennes are all to be applauded for their work. Nothing against Fiennes, but it’s hard to imagine better actors than Pacino and Irons. But of those two, Pacino is dominant. Pacino, who came to prominence playing Michael in The Godfather (1972), brings a lot of humanity to the villain character. He is a very three-dimensional character and while Pacino is capable of chewing the scenery, he is somewhat restrained here.

Al Pacino's Shylock is the most commanding performance in the film.

While Shylock is not The Merchant of Venice, Antonio is, the film’s most dramatic moments are when he’s in front of the camera and he frankly outshines Irons. While he’s good, Irons’ Antonio seems to take a backseat to Pacino’s Shylock, especially in the scenes they have together. Irons is a good actor in his own right, but doesn’t have the same presence Pacino commands.

As good as Pacino and Irons are, to me the break out performance comes from Lynn Collins, who played Portia. I am far from being the first reviewer to be impressed by her in this role. Collins, who had performed Shakespeare on stage prior, is excellent in the role. While it is obvious that she’s a woman playing a man in the scene in the court of the Duke of Venice, she is still fascinating to watch, both in and out of drag.

Lynn Collins was a stand out in the film playing Portia and Balthazar.

Speaking of being out of clothes, there is nudity in this film, something I doubt there was in the original staged versions of the film. The nudity, which is mostly confined to unconfined breasts, has a place and is perhaps historically accurate, as most of it occurs in scenes taking place in brothels. While it’s not just nudity for the sake of nudity, there are still 15 shots (someone else’s count) of bare breasts, which might not be what you’d expect with your Shakespeare. (Insert your own pound of flesh joke here.)

This was my first exposure to The Merchant of Venice in any form, having never seen this on stage or having read the play. I understand from reading that there are some changes between play and film, but that’s to be expected whenever a play is adapted, even one of Shakespeare’s. They are different media after all. I particularly liked using the actual canals of Venice for some of the backdrops. Seeing it performed where the play takes place adds to the story-telling in ways the playwright could have only imagined.

While this is not my favorite Shakespeare play, this adaptation of The Merchant of Venice is a good addition to the catalog of his plays put to film. There are other versions of the play out there to watch, most notably a 1973 television version starring Laurence Olivier, but it’s hard to imagine one as vital and alive as this one.

No comments:

Post a Comment