William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, awkward possessive credit in tow, takes on a play not frequently adapted for the screen. The reason for Merchant‘s relative filmic obscurity — despite some very famous passages — is its treatment of Shylock (here played by Al Pacino). An angry Jewish loan shark, he demands a “pound of flesh” to be extracted from Antonio (Jeremy Irons) when the Christian defaults on a loan. Shakespeare scholars regularly debate whether the play is 1) anti-Semitic at all, or 2) anti-Semitic intentionally. Director Michael Radford is so conscious of these concerns that he places a disclaimer of sorts before the opening credits, explaining the animosity between Christians and Jews in the 16th century setting. It’s also made clear in the first scene that Antonio and other Christians treat Shylock shabbily, and so his demand seems a function of revenge rather than a caricature.
The disclaimer hardly seems necessary with Al Pacino around. Pacino, noted lover of Shakespeare, strives for a multi-dimensional characterization of the angry Shylock, underlining his sadness and indignation. He shuffles, roars, whispers, cries and, of course, speechifies, with a showboat reading of “If you prick us, do we not bleed?” I’m usually inclined to forgive such excesses because Pacino is so much fun to watch and so obviously invested in the material. Still, his effort here to vitalize Shylock sometimes threatens to overwhelm the genuinely strange script. Shakespeare’s plays are often divided into the comedies, the tragedies, and the histories; I would add a fourth category, the tragicomedies. The Merchant of Venice, like The Tempest, walks that fascinating, sometimes confounding line.
This is clear enough in the plot, which has Antonio obtaining his loan from Shylock for the benefit of Bassanio (Joseph Fiennes), who needs money to woo the rich Portia (Lynn Collins). When Antonio’s fortunes go wrong and he’s unable to repay what he owes, the two threads converge in a manner so Shakespearean it’s almost self-parody: Antonio can only be saved from a violent, tragic end by the forces of really clever cross-dressing.
During the play’s climax, the juxtaposition is gripping, in a disorienting sort of way: We’re on edge as Shylock sharpens his knife, even as we’re delighted by Portia’s gutsy loveliness. The film becomes an indirect tug-of-war between Portia’s love and Shylock vengeance; the two characters are never properly introduced (indeed, they inhabit the extremes of the two genres fused here). For about half an hour, balance is achieved; once Shylock’s situation is settled, though, the remaining farce — amusing as it is — trails off. Both Portia and Shylock are at their best in opposition.
This spirit of opposition leaves Merchant of Venice full of fine supporting performances, but without a strong center. Shylock and Antonio’s is the most interesting conflict, but both characters are offscreen for long stretches; Bassanio and Portia are charming but insubstantial. Collins makes a spirited and engaging heroine, but Fiennes, looking more baby-faced, less cunning, than he did when he played the author in Shakespeare in Love, seems muffled.
Credit is due to Radford for going forward regardless of the difficulties of the text. After a dreary, costume-y beginning, the film reveals the dual pull of Shakespeare’s melodrama and farce for a stretch, and it is never less than watchable. But in the end, Radford has come up with a pretty typical Shakespeare film: handsomely mounted and well-acted, but a little tedious and never quite standing alone.