Michael Radford's splendid film of "The Merchant of Venice" is so somber -- and rightly so -- for so much of the time that it's hard to remember it is one of Shakespeare's comedies, indeed regarded as one of his greatest. Radford, best known for the hugely successful "Il Postino," takes a subtle approach that reveals how charged with ambiguity the play is, which makes this "Merchant" emerge as remarkably immediate and contemporary without ever seeming to strain for this effect.
Radford's direction of the ensemble cast is equally felicitous, for he has encouraged the actors to speak their lines in a conversational, natural way yet at the same time savor the poetry and eloquence of Shakespearean verse. His pacing is unhurried yet not slow, and this in turn allows his "Merchant" to become a movie with a life and rhythms of its own and not merely a filmed play.
In all its unique and enduring grandeur, Venice is always a glorious setting for a movie, but especially for "Merchant" because its appearance in the late 16th century is so easily -- and richly -- evoked. At that time the Venetian Republic was at once powerful and liberal, yet its Jewish community was required to live in a ghetto that was locked up at night. Additionally, Jews were compelled to wear distinguishing red hats in public and were not allowed to own property.
That last restriction led many Jews to engage in moneylending, a profession forbidden to Christians at the time but one that, while allowing many Jews to prosper, also made them vulnerable to charges of usury -- charging exorbitant rates of interest on loans. Indeed, in the opening moments of the film, Antonio (Jeremy Irons), a wealthy merchant, expresses contempt for the moneylender Shylock (Al Pacino) by spitting in his face.
It's a big mistake, for not long after that Antonio must turn to Shylock for a loan. The money enables his penniless young friend Bassanio (Joseph Fiennes) to pursue the vastly rich and beautiful heiress Portia of Belmont (Lynn Collins, as talented as she is lovely). By the terms of her father's will, Portia is to marry a suitably upper-crust suitor who correctly guesses which of three caskets -- one of gold, one of silver and one of lead -- contains a small portrait on porcelain of Portia, who fervently hopes that Bassanio will be the man who picks the right casket. But just as fate has shined kindly on Bassanio and Portia, they receive word that one of Antonio's shipping vessels has apparently been lost at sea and that he will not be able to repay his loan to Shylock, who in his hatred of Antonio has made a bond with him stating that he will charge him no interest but instead receive a pound of his flesh if he defaults on the loan. Shylock has been further enraged by the elopement of his daughter Jessica (Zuleikha Robinson) and Bassanio's friend Lorenzo (Charlie Cox).
These and other complications build to "The Merchant of Venice's" climactic trial, during which Shylock's demand for Antonio's pound of flesh is as righteous and just as it is patently absurd and cruel. Then appears a delicate-looking but brilliant young lawyer to settle the matter for Venice's courtly ruler (Anton Rodgers). At the darkest moment of his play, Shakespeare starts injecting an ever-larger dose of comedy.
The last century did a first-rate job of making people aware of the absurdity of evil; Radford reveals how fully Shakespeare grasped it more than 400 years ago. It is reflected in the outrageous discrimination against Jews and how in turn it encourages the very intelligent and reflective Shylock -- portrayed by Pacino in a mesmerizing, sympathetic yet warts-and-all characterization -- to lose sight of mercy to an extent that it will ultimately make him look preposterous. What Shylock learns is what all minority people experience at the hands of the majority: that in the face of adversity he is expected to demonstrate a nobility of character few of his oppressors would ever demand of themselves.
Shakespeare sees his people in the round. Irons' quiet-spoken Antonio is the seeming epitome of civility and kindness, but he is also revealed as a bigot and a slave profiteer. Although the attraction between Bassanio and Portia is mutual, Bassanio is also an opportunist who, in his need to finance a good front to qualify as a suitor for Portia, has endangered the very life of his generous friend Antonio. What Radford above all accomplishes in his filming of "The Merchant of Venice" is to suggest that, in essence, it is that most modern of entertainments: a dark -- indeed, very dark -- comedy.
'The Merchant of Venice'
MPAA rating: R for some nudity
Times guidelines: Brief above-the-waist nudity, complex adult themes
A Sony Pictures Classics release of a Movision Entertainment and Arclight Films presentation. Director Michael Radford. Producers Cary Brokaw, Barry Navidi, Jason Piette, Michael Lionello Cowen. Executive producers Manfred Wilde, Michael Hammer, Peter James, James Simpson, Alex Marshall, Robert Jones. Screenplay by Radford; adapted from the Shakespeare play. Cinematographer Benoit Delhomme. Editor Lucia Zucchetti. Music Jocelyn Pook. Costumes Sammy Sheldon. Production designer Bruno Rubeo. Supervising art director Jon Bunker. Running time: 2 hours, 11 minutes.
Exclusively at the Cecchi Gori Fine Arts, 8556 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, (310) 281-8223, at Loews Cineplex Broadway Cinemas, 1441 Third Street Promenade, Santa Monica, (800) FANDANGO, #706.