Wednesday, February 23, 2005

The Merchant of Venice

The Merchant of Venice (Director: Michael Radford)

Radford's best-known film is the very good Il Postino (The Postman). He worked on the TV show "Homicide" as well. This film is based on the play by William Shakespeare. It was a limited release on December 29, so it's a 2004 film.

I must profess ignorance in the knowledge of this story before I went in to watch the movie version. I had no idea what made it "Shakespeare's Most Controversial Work," as advertised by the previews. I had to do some research afterwards and discovered that this work is a comedy! Or, after watching the film, what I guess it was once intended to be. Actually, it does fall under the definition of "light drama," which is the "comedy" being referred to here, but time has caught up to this play.

Where time has caught up is the portrayal of Jews. Whoops, wait a minute, I forgot--we as a people are still down on Judaism, silly me. What I meant to say was, this play was written during the Elizabethan era of Christianity, and William Shakespeare wrote a play to cater to that by making his bad guy the Jewish Shylock (in this film played by Al Pacino). The story pits Christians (good) versus Jews (bad), and makes Shylock pay dearly in the end--it was a happy ending for all of those sitting in The Globe during its run. But little did they know that in 2005, the play would seem...anti-Semitic. Oh wait, yes they did (in fact, it was a selling point)--but without the negative connotations.

So now, we are in 2005 and Michael Radford wants to adapt the play, and hence, Shylock becomes a tragic figure. A little backstory:

It's 16th Century Italy and Jews are spat on, can't own land, and many find money through usury, the act of lending money with extravagant interest, which just happens to be illegal. Antonio (Jeremy Irons) is the merchant of venice that this play alludes to, but he is not the main character (there isn't, really, a main character). He is a man who spits on Shylock in public, but asks for his money in private. He is depressed, and from what I gather, is secretly in love with friend Bassanio (Elizabethan era film magnet Joseph Fiennes). Bassanio wants to woo hot, rich gal Portia (Lynn Collins), who is a slave to her father's dying wish that any potential suitor must figure out a riddle of three chests, one containing her picture and therefore the key to her fortune. Antonio, via Shylock, raises the money Bassanio will need to go a courtin'. Should Antonio not be able to pay the debt, Shylock has put a provision in the deal to extract a pound of flesh from Antonio.

While this is all very funny, the real comedy comes in with the character of Portia and her mistress (take your mind out of the gutter guys...I did eventually) Nerissa (Heather Goldenhersh), a sly couple of scheming women. But I don't want to write every detail of the story, since that would make this a plot summary rather than an opinion of the movie. However, when you write about Shakespeare, you almost have to write out the whole story. Since most of his stories are already well-known, an adaptation gets scrutinized for how faithful it is to the work, and whether they have made accurate or fulfilling insights into the many multiple-meaning passages of Shakespeare.

So in that regard, I take this angle on the film. If I were able to see Shylock as the antagonist Shakespeare has intended, I'd still find this to be a most confusing work. It's caught between being a serious drama with the business dealings, and being a farce with the romantic section. I can imagine that Shakespeare had a hard time finishing this one. That said, Radford's treatment makes it even more head-scratching, since he's trying to be sympathetic to Shylock, and his come-uppance in the end is seen as heartbreaking, and yet, there's all this gleeful stuff in the end that supposed to be very winning--which in the original work probably seemed great, but here it seems cruel for these people to be happy while someone else has their money and religion taken from him. At the same time, the movie does not view this happiness in the end to be cruel. In other words, Radford's adaptation is unfaithful towards Shylock, but faithful towards the happy Christian characters in the end--it wants it both ways, and I'm afraid it cannot.

Pacino is great here, and I believe this is a star-making performance from Lynn Collins. It's not a bad movie, but it's material (sorry Shakespeare, or as Homer said it in a Halloween episode, "Show's over, Shakespeare!") has got to be one of the most confused of his works, two tones at once, and not helped from the multiple personality of its adaptation, either.


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