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A Masterful 'Merchant'

By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 28, 2005; Page WE36

WHAT BETTER opportunity to chew up the scenery than to play Shylock in "William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice"? In Michael Radford's movie version of the Shakespeare play, Al Pacino puts on the gown and the red cap and dons the hoary beard. But, lo, he plays this larger-than-life role with entrancing restraint. He tempers the lofty speeches. He makes his gestures small-scale and therefore large. He's terrific to watch and listen to; you can't take your eyes off him.

There's more to Shylock than toning down your personal boombox, however. A problematic character in these enlightened times, he's largely an anti-Semitic creation: a debt-obsessive Jew hellbent on securing his pound of flesh from Antonio (the merchant of the title), who has forfeited on Shylock's personal loan.

Allan Corduner as Tubal and Al Pacino as Shylock in Shakespeare's "The Merchant of Venice," directed by Michael Radford. (Steve Braun -- Sony Pictures Classics)

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How do you portray such a character and also honor William Shakespeare's original text? (Do you even put on the play?) Director Radford and Pacino have taken this nettlesome challenge and transformed it into something worthwhile and charged with philosophical dimension. To watch this movie is to not only appreciate the majesty of Shakespeare's poetics but to engage in a profound, subtextual dialogue with bigotry.

A prologue on screen, for instance, tells viewers about the situation of Jews in Venice in the 16th century. Despite being a liberal city for its time, Venice still forbade Jews to own property and corralled them in a ghetto. When they left their compound, they were forced to wear red caps. Their only means of making an income was money lending. Thus, we are set up immediately for the notion that Shylock has no choice but to lend money for his livelihood.

There's another setup that tempers the rest of the movie. Antonio (Jeremy Irons), passing Shylock on the street, spits on him. Thus later, when Shylock mentions in one of the play's many well-known speeches that Antonio has spat on his Jewish gabardine, we have a primary image to remember. Antonio, no matter how softly Irons plays him, will always have that moral taint.

But on to the play. Young Bassanio (Joseph Fiennes) has fallen in love with Portia (Lynn Collins), a beautiful woman of means. Courting her will cost money, so he appeals to his longtime friend Antonio to secure a loan. They approach Shylock, who sees an unusual opportunity. He wants, he says, to secure Antonio's friendship with this loan. So he agrees to lend the money. But instead of charging a financial penalty if Antonio defaults, Shylock asks for the seeming pittance of a pound of flesh. The bond is sealed. Antonio expects a windfall of money from the return of his trading ships. Does Shylock really want the friendship, or does he hope for the failure of Antonio's enterprises? This hangs provocatively in the air.

Bassanio impresses Portia and secures her hand. But his triumph is spoiled by the revelation that Antonio's ships, indeed, have not come in. And since the contract allows Shylock to cut off that pound from any part of Antonio's body, including the heart, Antonio faces a near-certain death sentence. It's time for extraordinary measures.

The movie, like the play, moves inexorably toward a grand finale: the courtroom scene in which Shylock refuses to listen to pleas of mercy; a certain mysterious lawyer has a powerful day in court, and a raucous crowd of onlookers pepper the usurer with verbal hostilities. In Radford's hands, this is a rousing scene, and even if you already know the outcome, you still hang on every moment.

Beyond that, we are especially sensitized to Shylock, thanks to the canny chords of sympathy that are played for him throughout the drama. Thus, there can be no conclusion that truly solves the play's issues. This is the perfect approach for Shakespeare's story, which is rife with irony and contradiction.

Venice's watery wonders show nicely through Benoit Delhomme's lens, and Bruno Rubeo's attractive production design makes you want to book a time-machine flight to 1596 right away. (Portia's Belmont estate-island looks a little too distractingly CGI to be convincing, however. It's a virtual set from "The Lord of the Rings.") But as the cliche goes, the play's the thing. This movie is about its players, and they're all on-note and on-song, especially Collins who has surely set course for a fine career. (How fortuitous for her that Cate Blanchett did not take the part because of pregnancy.) She makes such vaunted speeches as "The quality of mercy is not strained" sound like real human discourse instead of recited poetry.

Radford understands, too, that poetry in a movie isn't just word, it's also image. As we listen to the dialogue, we can also savor the reactions of faces: Antonio's mournful, possibly amorous expression as he gazes upon Bassanio; Portia's hopeful glint, as Bassanio dithers over which of three boxes to choose. (One of those boxes contains Portia's picture, and whoever selects the right one, will win her.) In Collins's eyes, there are whole paragraphs to be read.

WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE'S THE MERCHANT OF VENICE (R, 127 minutes) -- Contains nudity and emotionally intense material. At the Avalon, Cineplex Odeon Shirlington, Cinema Arts Fairfax and Regal Bethesda 10.

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