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A Simplified 'Merchant' Still Generates Interest

By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 28, 2005; Page C05

Almost two centuries ago, Charles and Mary Lamb published their "Tales From Shakespeare," storybook reductions of the great plays, in simple prose. Most contemporary film adaptations of Shakespeare, including the new "William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice" starring Al Pacino, follow the Lambs' form -- a good, swift overview of the plot, with a little bit of the magnificent language thrown in. Such is the loss of currency of Shakespearean language that the reading level of the 1807 "Tales," intended for children, is about all that works in an art film today, even one intended for a sophisticated adult audience.

But the Lambs' "Tales" have their charms, and so does Michael Radford's reduction of "The Merchant." Shot, in part, in Venice, it has a compelling and gritty realism. It is a dark and brooding reading, with the stink of the Venetian canals and moral life almost physically palpable. And Pacino acquits himself admirably in the role of the Jewish usurer, Shylock, as do the surrounding characters who (despite the blinding wattage of Pacino's star power) are never quite reduced to cardboard cutouts.

Lynn Collins, left (with Heather Goldenhersh), is a forceful, intelligent Portia robbed of sparkle by the movie's lack of humor. (Steve Braun -- Sony Pictures)

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Though Shakespeare's language is mostly stripped off, the basic limbs of the story are clearly presented. Antonio, who has been funding the dissolute youth of his beloved male friend Bassanio, goes into debt to help Bassanio woo Portia, a young woman of fortune. Shylock, who lends the money, demands a pound of flesh from Antonio if the money is not returned on time. Misfortune puts Antonio at Shylock's mercy, and Shylock shows none at all. Thus two love stories (one homosexual, the other heterosexual) are intertwined with a story about mercy, revenge and religious intolerance.

Interpretively, Radford is squarely in the middle of mainstream readings of the work: Is this a story about anti-Semitism, or an anti-Semitic story? And is it a comic tale of a strong-willed young woman (Portia) looking for a leg up in a male-dominated society, or a dark love triangle in which heterosexuality defeats homosexual attraction?

Radford gives Shakespeare credit for a kind of journalistic objectivity about anti-Semitism that the playwright doesn't entirely deserve. The movie opens with text on-screen telling the viewer what should already be obvious: The late 16th century was deeply anti-Semitic, and Jews suffered remorseless treatment, ambiguous legal and social status and very often horrible privation. It's as if we're going to see a documentary on religious bigotry. Unfortunately, the play Shakespeare wrote is mostly a comedy, and although it has depths of feeling, and elicits occasional moments of sympathy for its Jewish villain, Shylock is ultimately a comic villain -- and the primacy of Christianity is never really challenged.

Dramatically, the ideal Shylock would be made of equal parts Woody Allen and Iago: ridiculous and menacing at the same time. But a crazy, comic, addled Shylock, an obsessive-compulsive moneylender with a murderous streak, is too unsympathetic, and too perilously close to anti-Semitic caricature, to hold the stage after the events of the last century. So the modern, serviceable Shylock of most productions (and Pacino's is no exception) is a more dignified and more palatable figure.

Not surprisingly, Pacino emphasizes everything that is sympathetic and qualifies everything that is repellent. His bloodthirstiness in revenge is something forced upon him by Christian cruelty. He is dignified in his rage, pitiable in his comeuppance. While Shakespeare's text suggests that Shylock loves money as much or more than his own daughter, Pacino argues that the moneylender has been so hurt by his daughter's betrayal that he can only express it in monetary terms -- the only terms he really knows, and the only terms Christian society allows him. This kind of Shylock almost works, and Pacino makes it work as well as anybody.

But it requires some warping of Shakespeare's intentions. The comedy is lost, and not just the comedy of frantic Shylock but also almost all the rest of the humor, including the not-so-brilliant clown scenes, which are suppressed or burnished darkly in Radford's film.

The strange and marvelous thing about Shakespeare, however, is that his work has a kind of self-balancing mechanism. Warp it a little to emphasize one thing, and it somehow straightens itself out by bringing new ideas to light in other places. By emphasizing the tragedy of Shylock in the first four acts, the tragedy of Antonio -- the actual "merchant of Venice" -- becomes more central in the fifth.

In Radford's telling, Antonio (Jeremy Irons) and Bassanio (Joseph Fiennes) have their first important dialogue in a bedroom, alone, and they seal their friendship with a lip-lock kiss -- thus underscoring the romantic element. In the end, Irons's Antonio is a powerful study in self-sacrifice, not just for his friend but also for the larger world of married heterosexual stability. Antonio and Shylock are both sacrifices, in a way, to the dominant order.

Fiennes's Bassanio never rises above the level of Hollywood pretty boy, but that's the point: Shakespeare's male lovers are often little more than good-looking ciphers. Like the handsome young man addressed in the sonnets, Bassanio needs a stern education in duty, and a loving foot to the backside. Lynn Collins's Portia is more forceful and intelligent, though the loss of the play's humor means the loss of much of her innate sparkle.

The movie's title, not "The Merchant of Venice" but "William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice," is probably meant to call attention to the director's liberties, especially his truncation of the text. Film is a visual medium, so it's to be expected that directors will choose to tell as much of the story visually (rather than verbally) as possible. (Verdi, when he set about composing an opera of "Othello," used a libretto that cut whole acts, to the infinite advantage of the music.)

For lovers of the play's language (and is there really any other reason to love Shakespeare?), the losses will hurt. But as cinematic storytelling, it works. And as the Lambs' well knew, this is a story worth telling, even in the simplest form.

William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice (138 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for some nudity.

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