Michael Radford’s version of William Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, closes with Jessica (Zuleikha Robinson), looking out on one of the many canals that crisscross her hometown. Surrounded throughout by the social tensions and roiling emotions acted out by her moneylender father Shylock (Al Pacino) and his client, the titular merchant Antonio (Jeremy Irons), she at last has no place to turn. Her recently inaugurated future, orchestrated in this Shakespearean “comedy” as a pair of rowdy bookendy romances, between Portia (Lynn Collins) and Bassanio (Joseph Fiennes), and Portia’s maid and Bassanio’s man, is suddenly a non-place. Jessica is alone, contemplative, and distressed. For in her choice to run off with a Christian boy, the Jewish girl has abandoned her father and her culture, and is then unable to return.
So many other takes on Merchant leave Jessica to the emotional and even political sidelines. But Radford’s makes her a focus by this very point, that she feels and looks cast off, powerless, and frustrated. Her battles with her conservative father increase his own sense of outrage and resistance, such that his deal with Antonio leads to community and personal crisis. When Jessica abandons Shylock for pretty (and here, rather vacant) Lorenzo (Charlie Cox), the old man is left enraged and confirmed in his belief that the Gentiles mean to take away all—his sense of tradition, his wealth, his family. And so he seeks vengeance on Antonio, demanding literal payment for his forfeit of his loan, the notorious “pound of flesh.”
The actual number of minutes Jessica appears on screen is small, compared to those granted to Radford’s star players. Set in a Venice that fairly flickers in natural-seeming light, in shots beautifully composed and modulated by cinematographer Benoît Delhomme, the leads also embody the play’s driving contradictions—they tilt between ambitious and generous, frail and gritty. In the play’s more famous roles, the filmmaker sorts out compelling emotional details, including Bassanio’s carelessness, Antonio’s yearning, Portia’s cutting insight, Shylock’s loss and bitterness.
So you can’t miss Shylock’s sense of cause, the film begins with an epigraph explaining the abuses of Jews by Gentiles in 16th century Venice and the Jewish population’s relegation to a ghetto. In Shylock’s first appearance, he is spit on by the arrogant Antonio, a brief moment that exposes the latter’s vulgarity, even as he supposes himself refined. By contrast, Shylock immediately appears hoary and stooped, and righteously incensed. And Pacino (thankfully) backs off, containing Shylock’s temper as reaction, looking simultaneously vile and vulnerable, hardly a simple balance in a play that has been accused of being anti-Semitic as well as an exposure of anti-Semitism. That this debate continues to this day—partly filtered through readings of Shakespeare’s supposed perspective or intention, partly through readings of “his time”—only makes its pull seem more irresistible. How might its difficulties and derogations reflect a historical moment, or perhaps chart a future?
The film takes another potentially controversial tack, in revealing a nuanced erotic tension between Antonio and Bassanio. This is reflected first in the effort Antonio makes to borrow 3000 ducats in order that his dear friend might court the mightily wealthy Portia. But it is also made visible in their deeply exchanged glances, in Antonio’s bedroom (where he hears of Bassanio’s new devotion to Portia and Irons’ face caves in on the news) and in the courtroom, where Shylock endeavors to argue his case, his right to Antonio’s frankly meager flesh. In a climactic moment, Antonio’s shirt is ripped open, to expose Irons’ thin chest, his body suddenly a map of his sorrow, his suffering, and his desire for the young man for whom he is about to sacrifice his very life.
Here, in the courtroom, Bassanio is left to his own sort of sideline, as his own brand new wife, Portia, takes over. Having disguised herself as a male lawyer, she enters this masculine forum to discover what disaster has drawn her husband from their first night’s bed. And here she sees it, as you do as well: this is the space for men’s business, the trading of ideas and possessions, the decision-making that puts value and cost on feelings. Portia is a clever, educated woman, and so she has little trouble outthinking the men around her, but in so doing, she is also left to wonder at their presumed entitlement. And her reaction to Antonio’s bare bony chest is telling: she’s startled by the weakness of his flesh, even as she has previously understood him as a rival for her husband’s attention.
Typical of Shakespeare’s gender-switching plays, the conflicts throughout, like the eventual revelations, emerge in a mix of witty banter and metaphor, comedy that speaks to pain. As much as Portia-in-disguise pronounces the “mercy” that ideally governs Christian law, it’s clear also that she will have to educate Bassanio, whose cavalier attitude toward money and marriage has led to the central discords.
And in the end, it is Jessica’s silent appearance that brings order and a sort of meaning to all this cacophony. A closeup reveals that she has in fact retained the family heirloom—a ring—that her father thinks she has given away. And in this instant, the film’s interests become beautifully clear: her loss, Shylock’s defeat, and the wealthy folks’ willful ignorance are all part of the same social design.