This is one for all connoisseurs of Shakespeare and Shakespearean film adaptations. Also for fans of director Michael Radford (of the excellent Il Postino and 1984), Al Pacino, and Jeremy Irons who are all impressive in this well-made labor of love.
The Merchant of Venice is a very tough play to put on because of its anti-Semitism and the handling of Shylock and the Christians. But I think Radford gets it right. He allows viewers to understand all the reasons for Shylock’s enthusiasm for exacting his bond on Antonio while simultaneously showing us–as I believe Shakespeare intended–that Shylock was a man, like King Lear, “more sinned against than sinning”. Pacino gives one of his best, realistic, and most convincing performances and never overacts. His speeches form the centre of the revenge-justice-mercy conflict.
Jeremy Irons is very good as the loving friend who is never bitter, nor regrets going to bat for his friend Bassanio. Indeed, this is also Shakespeare’s strongest play on friendship and loyalty. One interesting side conflict is also that between Bassanio’s loyalties to his friend and to his wife as symbolized by the ring incident. (This conflict is timeless and still occurs in modern times.)
Lynn Collins is effective, complementing a similar ordinary-looking husband Bassanio (Joseph Fiennes), In fact, this is one of the strengths of the film; it is not falsely glamorous like some Shakespearean films have been, making it easier for ordinary people to identify with the characters and plot. (Of course, viewers are amazed that no one recognizes that the judge is Collins, which is a problem which attends all productions like this one, Twelfth Night, and others in which characters comically change genders.)
That inevitable unbelievability aside, this is a strong production with uniformly good supporting actors, faithfulness to the text, a reasonable presentation of the three chests episode, an interesting ‘antique’ tone to the film’s look, wonderful period music by Jocelyn Pook set to poems by famous poets, and a trial climax and ring recovery anti-climax which do not disappoint.
It is hard to imagine a better production of this tricky play, but Michael Radford has succeeded as he did notably well with 1984 and Il Postino. (The latter two are must-sees if you enjoyed this adaptation.) The above DVD (Sony Pictures Classics) is quite entertaining and therefore is highly recommended.