Radford's "Merchant," Not the Best Bard But Worth Celebrating
by Peter Brunette
There's simply no getting around the fact that Shakespeare's play, "The Merchant of Venice," is more or less straightforwardly, even violently, anti-Semitic. Shylock, ironically one of the Bard's most memorable characters, was written to be both sympathized with and despised. While it is true, as the playwright tells us with the soaring words he himself put in Shylock's mouth, that Jews are just as human as the rest of us, it is nevertheless uncomplicatedly understood that the Jew, while human, is of a decidedly lower form.
Hence the paucity of cinematic representations of the play, especially in the last century, the century of the movies, when Jews have suffered so much. Thus the absolutely best thing about Michael Radford's new adaptation of the play is the pains it takes to set the story in its historical context, by adding a series of explanatory titles at the beginning, along with various bits of stage business scattered throughout the play, that allow us to understand the cultural blinders that afflict Shylock's adversaries, and yet still sympathize with them, for they are, of course, presented as the aggrieved parties in the "Merchant of Venice." If this fact is not conveyed and accepted at some level, the play simply will not work.
The other fine thing about Radford's adaptation is, not surprisingly, as with most filmed versions of Shakespeare, the generally high quality of the acting, though it is also uneven in a few places. Jeremy Irons continues to astonish in the mostly silly role (looked at from a contemporary perspective, at least) of Antonio, the high-minded merchant who agrees to put up a pound of his flesh to guarantee the loan that his lovelorn friend Bassanio (Joseph Fiennes) obtains from Shylock in order to pursue his courtship of the lovely Portia. Fiennes is not an especially brilliant actor, but he is believable in this simple portrait of a man torn between love for a woman and love for his noble friend. The two problems lie with Portia, played by Lynn Collins, who just doesn't have the acting chops to tread the same boards as her fellow actors, and Shylock, played often marvelously but somewhat unevenly by Al Pacino. Though he is powerful and moving during the famous soliloquies, occasionally a stereotyped Eastern European accent creeps into his dialogue that makes him sound more like Mel Brooks than a Jew inhabiting late sixteenth-century Venice.
The other problem is endemic to all cinematic adaptations of the Bard. Thus, while a case can be made that the cinema is inherently realistic, there is nothing more purposely artificial than a Shakespearean play which is, after all, mostly about its language. When dialogue written in words that are 400 years old is delivered "realistically," as movies are wont to do, normal viewers will struggle even more to understand than they would in the theater. The other difficulty is a structural one that is simply unavoidable, if any fidelity to the original is to be maintained. Thus after the brilliant, riveting courtroom scene in which Shylock is legalistically denied his pound of flesh by the clever Portia in disguise as a learned doctor of law, what follows in the play is a tiresome section about Bassanio's marital difficulties. In point of fact, this scene is important thematically, but dramatically -- at least in cinematic terms -- it's a letdown after the power of the scene in the courtroom.
But these problems are never enough, thankfully, to derail Radford's film, and for the most part this serviceable and beautifully mounted production accomplishes what it sets out to. Radford has also experimented a little around the edges, quite properly putting his own spin on things, for example, in suggesting a homoerotic bond between Antonio and Bassanio that would allow the former to agree to sacrifice so much out of "friendship" to the latter. Furthermore, Radford adds some interesting if not strictly speaking "authorized" touches to the character of Jessica, Shylock's daughter, whose elopement with a Christian is the source of his furious revenge against Antonio, a proxy for all those who oppress him and his race. Thus, while Shakespeare has her un-problematically and happily embrace her new life as a Christian at the end of the play, Radford gives us some close-ups on her troubled face and on the Jewish ring on her finger, thus offering some sense of the remorse that must haunt her.
While it's far from the best Shakespearean adaptation ever filmed, it's clearly the best "Merchant" we've had in a long time, and that's cause for celebration enough.