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Customer Review

172 of 192 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars EXCELLENT PRODUCTION AND GREAT CAST MAKE "MERCHANT" MUST SEE, 19 Feb 2005
This review is from: The Merchant of Venice [DVD] [2004] (DVD)
"The Merchant of Venice" has undoubtedly become the most controversial play in Shakespeare's repertoire. Therefore, the first task of any modern adaptation is confronting the anti-Jewish bigotry that moves its plot and informs its poetry.
Director Michael Radford approaches the problem of Shylock (Al Pacino) by placing the character in context. This is accomplished by early making clear to us that the story takes place in "Venice, 1596." Although Shakespeare would not have announced this as the actors took their places on the stage of The Globe Theater, the movie's titles offer background about the marginal status and civic oppression of that city's Jewish population. Of course, just as in other parts of Europe, Venetian Jews were forced to practice usury because they were legally barred from most other ways of earning a living. In 1596, lending money at interest -- vital in the economy of the city-state and its merchants -- was something Christians wouldn't be caught dead doing. At the time, pimping and prostitution were considered much loftier occupations.
Still, none of this explains Shylock's character. Nor does it soften the taint of blood libel in Shakespeare's play. The only real choices for Radford were either to simply not to make "The Merchant of Venice" or to permit its uglier qualities to continue to complicate its wonderful rhetoric and brilliant examination of law, loyalty, the ethics of making promises -- and even issues of empathy, sympathy, and mercy. Redford decided to make the movie.
The movie has a bumpy beginning. Well of course, Shakespeare's 16th century dramas take longer in getting to the point than do 21st centiry movies. Today's audiences are used to having everything defined and in place after the first 10 minutes. But Radford, who wrote the screenplay, succeeds in making the story's complexities clear and vigorous. Too many modern productions of Shakespeare's plays push them into a contrived modern setting or chase after an irrelevant authenticity. But Radford [vitally aided by production designer Bruno Rubeo and the unbelievably talented cinematographer Benoît Delhomme] ingeniously bring us Shakespeare through the eyes of his artistic peers and contemporaries.
In this rendering of "The Merchant ...," Shylock's tragic grief is emphasized more than his predatory viciousness. His estrangement from the other characters makes sense because Shylock is, after all, an outsider who delivers much rougher verses than do his privileged, establishment Christian antagonists.
A depressed Antonio, the titled merchant, is quietly made to penetrate our consciousness by Joseph Fiennes, as his young friend Bassanio (whose courtship of Portia causes Antonio to mortgage his infamous pound of flesh to Shylock), speaks his lines beautifully. Fiennes is, nevertheless, upstaged by Kris Marshall, his feisty second, Gratiano, and also by Lynn Collins. She brings a radiant authority to her portrayal of Portia. Collins' charisma is vital for Radford in making his movie-play effective. Portia must convincingly both be a shrewd seductress and also an exacting ethicist. Her defeat of Shylock is among the great courtroom scenes in recent movies -- presented as an intense, emotionally boiling cauldron of cruelty and beauty. Like most of the rest of Radford's carefully creative interpretation of this impossible play, his Portia comes across with fresh dramatic intensity -- while her well lighted and photographed beauty are a banquet for our eyes.
Shakespeare's "Merchant" was trimmed by Radford to a manageable movie length and, for the most part, it is faithful in letter and spirit to the original play. Radford's 21st century version is exciting and completely entertaining -- and you won't want to miss it.
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