Daily Archives: February 14, 2023

The Merchant of Venice (2004)

*. Shylock is one of those few Shakespearean characters who have taken over the plays they appear in, Falstaff being the other most obvious example. It’s easy to forget that The Merchant of Venice is not about Shylock, that he is not the merchant of the play’s title, that he in fact only appears in a handful of scenes and doesn’t have that many lines (13% of the total, which is the same as Bassanio and less than Portia), and that he disappears from the play entirely at the end of the fourth act, not even being mentioned again indirectly.
*. Shylock takes over the play, or has taken over the play (the way he’s been played has evolved over the centuries) for a couple of reasons. In the first place because he’s a well-written, compelling character. But also because he’s surrounded by a bunch of wallpaper. Antonio (the merchant) is a drippy Christ figure (with that aspect really played up in this production by Jeremy Irons). I’ve never understood what anyone sees in Bassanio (Joseph Fiennes here), who strikes me as little more than a possibly bisexual gigolo (or “ambassador of love”). Portia (Lynn Collins) is a bit more lively, but the feisty crossdresser was a Shakespearean stock player. Shakespeare himself doesn’t seem much interested in the clown Launcelot, and in this production he’s almost invisible.

*. And so naturally Shylock becomes the focus of our attention. Today it’s usually played as a message play about the evils of anti-Semitism, and that’s again the direction taken here. The film even opens with a bunch of pre-title text giving the status of Jews in Venice in this period, and a scene (not in Shakespeare’s play) showing Jews being harassed and abused (including Antonio spitting on Shylock).
*. The effect of this is to get us to sympathize with Shylock. Other choices made advance this further. For example, we never hear Shylock equating the loss of his daughter with that of his ducats except in such a way as to strongly imply that he in fact never does so. This is a fair interpretation of the text though, as the scene is only described to us indirectly in the play, and from a biased source. A heavier finger is put on the scale however when Shylock’s reasons for hating Antonio are elided. In the play he confesses in a soliloquy, cut here, that “I hate him for he is a Christian” and for his naive generosity. None of this is made out in the film, and instead we’re led to see his actions as driven by his need to revenge himself on Antonio for the abduction of his daughter. Which is a bit of a stretch, given Antonio’s vague complicity in that plot and the fact that Shylock’s revenge was already being planned before Jessica elopes.

*. One can certainly understand a modern production not wanting to present Shylock as a caricature, and in truth that is not Shakespeare’s Shylock. On the other hand, he is a villain. He has his reasons, but he’s still a miserable piece of work. Drawing too sympathetic a Shylock loses this. Pacino wanted to play him as someone suffering from depression, but I find this still falls short of his vindictiveness.
*. Well, doing Shakespeare means making choices and I can’t argue much with the ones made here. There were some eyebrows raised at Bassanio kissing Antonio, but I think the film does a good job of suggesting the nature of their relationship without being any more explicit. There are a number of subtle interpretive touches like this. Another example is the way Shylock seems aware of Jessica’s duplicity before she runs away. There’s nothing explicit there either, but you sense something you can’t put your finger on.

*. The Prince of Morocco’s accent is irritating and takes something away from his scene. Apparently the producers wanted Eddie Murphy for the part, and David Harewood ends up playing Murphy playing a caricature African prince. In its defence, however, it is one of the few comic scenes in what is, at least formally, a comedy (meaning the pairs of young lovers overcome various difficulties and the play ends up with everyone getting married). I don’t think The Merchant of Venice is a very funny play though, so you have to pick your spots to go for laughs.
*. On the plus side, I don’t think I’ve seen the cross-dressed female leads done more convincingly as male. The facial hair helps.
*. Since this is Shylock’s play/film that means it’s also Al Pacino’s. I think he’s very good, playing the part in the same low-key register as the rest of the cast. Even in his big scenes he doesn’t tear up the scenery. He’s not Tony Montana, who takes pleasure in cutting people up, but more Michael Corleone, for whom everything is just business. As I’ve already indicated, my own impression of Shylock is that he’s a darker figure than this, but I found this Shylock perfectly defensible.

*. As with this tone, the photography is also kept consistent. There was a conscious reliance on painterly compositions throughout, with the final image being a gilded Carpaccio. This has the effect of slowing things down, but not in a bad way. We often seen the actors blocked out as though frozen on a canvas. On the DVD commentary director Michael Radford even mentions a static quality. Again, maybe not the way I’ve come to think of the play, but something I can appreciate.
*. Radford also mentions that this was the first time a film crew had been allowed to shoot in the Doge’s Palace since Orson Welles made Othello fifty years earlier. An interesting connection.
*. In my notes on L’Inferno, the 1911 Italian production of Dante’s poem, I registered my surprise that after over a hundred years it remains the only feature-length production of such famous material. I was even more surprised when doing a bit of reading about this movie to find that it was the first big-screen adaptation of the play. That seems impossible to me, and I’m still not sure it can be right. It is, however, the only movie version I’ve seen and while I found myself resisting it at several points it finally won me over. It doesn’t jump out at you, but it’s quietly accomplished and a faithful rendering.