The Merchant Of Venice

The Merchant Of Venice


Reviewed by: Angus Wolfe Murray

Of all the Shakespeare plays, this one has become a symbol of feminism - Portia's grand speech in the courtroom, dressed as a man, incidentally - and the opportunity for a famous thespian to showboat his Shylock before an adoring audience.

Michael Radford is concerned with the story, the history, the complexity and tradition of courtship in 16th century Italy and, of course, the Jewish question. He demands authenticity from his actors, not scene theft, and receives it in generous proportions. You are unlikely to see stronger performances in a costume drama for a very long time.

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Venice in 1596 may be the liberal capital of the world, oozing sex and style, but there is a dark side that has spooky similarities to the Third Reich. Jews cannot own property. They must live under curfew in ghettos, where they conduct their business of usury. When out amongst Christians in the city, they are obliged to wear scarlet hats, signifying their tribe, not so different from the star of David during the time of Anne Frank.

The first sight of Shylock (Al Pacino) is in a crowd, where the merchant Antonio (Jeremy Irons) spits on him. It is a casual gesture, hardly worth noting, and yet to the Jew it represents yet another act of humiliation that will eventually fester into an obsession for vengeance.

As with every Shakespeare play, except the Scottish one, the plot is complex and multi-faceted, requiring an unnatural degree of concentration to understand who fits where with whom and why love is so painful and elusive. Radford has shorn the text to a manageable shape that appears thrilling and trim - an admirable achievement.

Antonio loves Bassanio (Joseph Fiennes) and borrows a sum of money from Shylock so that the younger man can pay off his debts and present himself as a suitable husband to the heiress Portia (Lynn Collins). Antonio loses one of his ships in a storm and cannot pay Shylock back in the specified time. The Jew demands his bond, which is a pound of flesh. The matter goes to court and Portia, disguised as a young advocate from out of town, pleads for Antonio's life, unaware, at that moment, of his relationship with Bassanio.

Pacino and Irons are outstanding. Radford conveys the gentle corruption and easy decadence of Venetian life with infinite subtlety. As the story progresses, tension mounts beyond anything imaginable in what Eng Lit students thought of as speech-thick verbal soup.

This adaptation proves beyond doubt that The Bard is a master storyteller and, in the right hands, visually dazzling.

Reviewed on: 02 Dec 2004
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Shakespeare's tale of usuary and romance in Italy.
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The Dude ****1/2

Director: Michael Radford

Writer: Michael Radford, based on the play by William Shakespeare

Starring: Al Pacino, Jeremy Irons, Joseph Fiennes, Lynn Collins, Mackenzie Crook, Allan Corduner, Zuleikha Robinson, Charlie Cox, John Sessions, Gregor Fisher

Year: 2004

Runtime: 138 minutes

BBFC: PG - Parental Guidance

Country: US / Italy / Luxembourg / UK


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