Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice” is both a profound and profoundly troubling play, and it receives a mostly intelligent, slightly revised interpretation from director Michael Radford and a competent cast. The play is often accused of anti-Semitism because of the character of Shylock (Al Pacino), Jewish moneylender in Venice. Radford carefully explains the cultural background, and Shylock and initially seems to be only an oppressed man who wants revenge. But there’s that pesky pound of flesh, which can’t be explained away.
Bassanio (Joseph Fiennes) needs money to woo Portia (Lynn Collins). His good friend (and, it is slyly implied, more than friend) Antonio (Jeremy Irons) offers his good credit for a loan from Shylock. The terms are such that if Antonio does not pay back the loan within three months, Shylock can take a pound of Antonio’s flesh. This is assumed to be only a joke, but problems arise, and, it turns out, Shylock wants that pound of flesh really, really badly.
The atmosphere is appropriate, including the requisite gondolas, and the performance varies in quality. Pacino’s distracting American accent (the other principals either are or sound English), ironically helps him seem even more of an outsider, though he unexpectedly underplays Shylock, who is not as vivid a character as he should be (perhaps out of a justifiable fear of the play’s nastier undertones). Irons brings a welcome gravity to Antonio, though it looks like he doesn’t have a pound of flesh to spare. Fiennes is somewhat bland, and outshone by Collins. Portia is one of Shakespeare’s most intelligent and likeable heroines, and Collins makes her by far the most interesting character in the film. Her late courtroom scene is the highlight of the movie.
Unfortunately, while it is rarely less than effective, “The Merchant of Venice” is only occasionally compelling, and those not interested in Shakespeare’s language are apt to be bored by the leisurely pace of the plot. If it weren’t for the plentiful nudity, one could easily imagine this film as a permanent fixture of high school English classes. Yet, considering the surprising lack of filmed “Merchants” (the Internet Movie Database indicates that this is the first one to receive a theatrical release since 1922, compared to six Othellos) Radford has done a valuable service, and any Shakespeare connoisseur will find this adaptation mostly enjoyable.