The Merchant of Venice
Review Date: 2.26.05
Now playing at the Nickelodeon and in other theaters in the area, Michael Radford's version of The Merchant of Venice has critics raving. For that reason, and many others, having to do with the disturbing nature of the story, the sheer length of the play and the inexorable machinery of its tragic plot, I didn't want to see it. So I'm writing this review for those of you who may have hesitations. It is an amazing, powerful, incredibly disturbing brilliant interpretation of Shakespeare's work. It's a play that has long puzzled audiences: is it anti-semitic or anti-anti-semitic? In high school, the speech we all memorized was "the quality of mercy," intoned in all seriousness as a lofty moral and oh so Christian aspiration; in college, it was Shylock's great speech about the human-"if you prick us, do we not bleed?" Lately, readers of the bard notice the abiding homoeroticism of the male friendships, nowhere more evident than in the relationship between Antonio and Bassanio. This production handles it all with perfect pitch.
Set in 16th century Venice, this is the story of a young man who has gambled away his fortunes and cooks up a scheme to restore his wealth by marrying a beautiful and rich lady. But he needs capital to pursue her-this is Bassanio. He is beloved of Antonio, an older merchant with means. But, since Antonio's capital is all invested in seafaring ventures, he lends Bassanio his name and his good reputation to borrow money. Meanwhile-and here the movie clearly departs from the play-the opening credits tell us not about this plot, but about the situation of Jews in early modern Europe, confined to ghettos even in the liberal multicultural proto-capitalist city of Venice, surviving by providing loan services to Christians, for whom "usury" is a sin. We see Shylock scorned then imposed upon for the loan. And I think you know the rest.
The film's success does not entirely depend upon the absolutely stunning performances of its cast, but it certainly helps that Al Pacino (as Shylock) and Jeremy Irons (as Antonio) are the consummate and mature actors they are. Everything they do is powerful, huge, nuanced, and humming with dramatic tension. Joseph Fiennes does a great job with Bassanio, his weaker, less certain personality meshing beautifully with the relative spinelessness of the role; and Lynn Collins is surprisingly versatile, morphing from the witty, loquacious, quintessentially Shakespearean Portia to the young and cleverly devious lawyer Balthazar seamlessly and believably. I couldn't get over it when she switched back-was that the same woman?
I won't tell you how it ends, because it does something very interesting with Antonio, on the one hand, and Jessica, on the other, something permitted but not scripted by the play. The rest of the interpretation captures beautifully the ambiguity of the original combined with the decisiveness of the present: these Christians are hypocritical, smug, cruel, and money-grubbing; they are racist and sadistic. The mercy speech only serves to condemn them further, all the more so in that it issues forth from the mouth of a young and beautiful boy. Shylock carries on his back the full weight of a culture's scorn and-when that culture defeats him once again-he is crushed. But for a moment we see what it would mean to take a stand-and we are moved. His silent partner, his double, is Antonio, who insults him ceaselessly and yet whose love, the movie suggests, might also, were he to express it fully, make him a hated other too.
Finding one's way through the ambiguous ideological forest of the play would be achievement enough-Radford, of course, comes down decisively against Christian anti-semitism-but to have also portrayed the economic instrumentalization of women in a stridently homosocial world; to have drawn out the homoerotics of early modern friendship evident in the play; to have exposed the self-serving, strategic, and cynically Christian nature of the mercy speech; and to have paused on, yet not over-played, Shylock's reminder to the court-and to us-that the good Christian citizens of Venice were slaveholders who claimed their rights to other persons as property-these are the astonishing accomplishments of the film. Go see it.
Looking for trouble at the movies, for KUSP and the film gang, this is Carla Freccero.