- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 26, 2005

“William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice” transposes one of the plays frequently revived on the stage but systematically neglected — at least since the advent of English-speaking talkies — on the screen. Directed by Michael Radford, the incongruously British director of “Il Postino,” “Merchant” showcases Al Pacino as Shylock, a mixed blessing that justifies the curiosity.

John Gross’ invaluable 1992 study of the play’s enduring impact and baleful influence over the centuries, “Shylock: A Legend & Its Legacy,” recalls an attempt by George Arliss to promote a movie version of his successful Broadway revival. Not even his Oscar-winning “Disraeli” in 1930 could persuade reluctant Hollywood managements to back him.

The BBC did preserve a Jonathan Miller production that co-starred Laurence Olivier as Shylock and Joan Plowright as Portia in 1973. Apart from Miss Plowright’s commanding presence in the trial scene, it is not an impressive relic. In the meantime, no one cared to transpose acclaimed Shylocks from the likes of George C. Scott, Patrick Stewart and David Suchet, among others.

A Victorian Venice was one of the sore points in the Olivier-Plowright edition, so it’s reassuring to see Mr. Radford evoke a traditional setting of late Renaissance dwellings, waterways and legal chambers. He provides himself with a firmer historical foundation for the intense antagonism that continues to fuel the play. It’s manipulated to the brink of calamity in the trial scene, always highly irregular but reliably compelling — no less so in this re-enactment, where Mr. Radford concentrates all his resources for a sinister and dynamic showdown.

Mr. Pacino’s proudly vindictive plaintiff, a Jewish moneylender, is pitted against a far from exemplary company of gentile aristocrats and wastrels who have rallied to the protection of Jeremy Irons’ weary-beyond-weary Antonio. A fellow merchant who spurns usury, Antonio guarantees a loan to his young protege, Joseph Fiennes’ Bassanio, and the generosity places him in grotesquely mortal legal jeopardy from Shylock.

The defendant’s case is rescued, of course, by Portia, a wealthy heiress successfully wooed by Bassanio. Lynn Collins seems a bit ponderous in the episodes that celebrate Portia as a very privileged girl, awaiting a suitable love match at her palatial estate, Belmont. But disguised as a precocious legal consultant from Padua in the trial scene, she becomes a persuasively clever and devious girl while entrapping the overconfident Shylock, thwarted in his appalling demand to exact a literal pound of flesh from Antonio as payment for Bassanio’s debt.

The play exhibits a split personality that defies reconciliation. At this late date the only practical way to protect the estrangement is to play each aspect with utter conviction, letting the contradictions and bad vibes fall where they may. The romantic comedy material revolving around the courtship of Portia and Bassanio seems trivial — sometimes tediously and heartlessly so — when compared with the embittered drama generated by Shylock’s clash with Antonio and Venetian anti-Semitism. It’s difficult to remain patient with the former while reeling from the latter.

Mr. Radford’s direction is haphazard. The fact that he never seems to feel at home in fair Belmont is not necessarily a defect, although it makes heavy going of the scenes where Portia’s suitors play their games of guess the lucky prize box. However, Mr. Fiennes and Miss Collins are such a hard sell as a love match that every dubious undercurrent in their betrothal is underlined.

Mr. Radford is more attentive to his star, but he fails to give the “Hath not a Jew eyes?” monologue undivided attention from preamble to conclusion in part because he’s set up distracting background shots of bare-breasted tarts who belong to a nearby brothel. As a rule, Mr. Pacino gets a chance to let Shylock’s lines sting and penetrate, which they do even when his accent and cadences go a little freakish.

The supporting cast boasts a striking Graziano in Chris Marshall, who seems to relish every opportunity to lash out at Shylock. Unlike Jeremy Irons, he doesn’t look as if it would pain him in the least to spit on a social inferior.

**1/2

TITLE:# “William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice”

RATING: R (Occasional profanity and frank expressions of ethnic and religious bigotry in a 16th-century setting; allusions to gruesome reprisals)

CREDITS: Directed by Michael Radford. Screenplay by Mr. Radford. Cinematography by Benoit Delhomme. Production design by Bruno Rubeo. Costume design by Sammy Sheldon. Music by Jocelyn Pook

RUNNING TIME: 131 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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