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Sony Picture Classics presents

The Merchant of Venice (2004)

"If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?"- Shylock (Al Pacino)

Stars: Al Pacino, Jeremy Irons, Joseph Fiennes, Lynn Collins
Director: Michael Radford

MPAA Rating: R for some nudity
Run Time: 02h:11m:16s
Release Date: 2005-05-10
Genre: drama

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A- ABB- B-


DVD Review

While Ben Jonson was right that Shakespeare was not of an age, but for all time, The Merchant of Venice seems especially relevant to our political and cultural moment: its twin themes of ethnicity and the perils inherent in capitalism speak to our age of Internet bubbles and religious fundamentalism. Michael Radford's elegant, reasonably spare film of the play doesn't push the cultural analogies too hard, yet intelligently asks us to draw our own parallels; the cast is especially adept at making the intentions clear in reciting Shakespeare's verse, without either bludgeoning it into Stanislavskian oblivion or turning the proceedings into a poetry reading filled with plummy tones. And the movie is frequently lovely to look at, though the fun of packing up to Italy for the shoot isn't without its pitfalls.

The action of course takes place in Venice, and the title character is Antonio, a morose speculator in the international markets; his ships are at sea, but it's not the uncertain nature of his business that seems to have him so blue. The play begins with the limits of Antonio's self-reflection, as he observes: "In truth I know not why I am so sad." One unspoken reason, according to the very clear subtext in this incarnation of the play, is Antonio's unrequited love for Bassanio; homoeroticism in Shakespeare is frequently just below the surface, and must have been especially so in the playwright's time, with young boys playing all the women's roles. Bassanio has his own woes, both of the heart and on the ledger, and though Antonio doesn't have the cash on hand, he enters into a dangerous business arrangement: on Bassanio's behalf, Antonio will borrow 3,000 ducats from Shylock, a Jewish moneylender, to be paid back in three months. If the terms of the agreement are not met, Shylock is to receive, as default, a pound of Antonio's flesh.

Jeremy Irons makes for a moody, well-spoken Antonio; it's a peculiar part in the Shakespearean canon in some ways, the most circumspect of heroes. Bassanio is played by Joseph Fiennes, perhaps best known to American audiences for playing the screenwriter of this picture, not incidentally also the title character in Shakespeare in Love, and he's winning and well spoken, if a little bland. The object of his affection, Portia, is played by Lynn Collins, who eschews self-pity and generalities, and turns in a specific and smart characterization—Portia in some productions is vanilla, in others a shrew, but here she's neither.

And just as the play is in many ways overshadowed by Shylock, the cast is dominated by the Shakesepearean stylings of one Al Pacino. Pacino's recent film work has been bizarrely stylized, an odd combination of high theatrics, crazed mannerisms and Walken-like cadences; he's got as much respect for Shakespeare as anyone, though, as anyone who has seen Looking for Richard can attest. (I was also fortunate enough to see Pacino play Marc Antony as part of the Public Theater's Shakespeare marathon. Friends, Romans, countrymen: say good night to the bad guy.) His Shylock is dogged, the victim of overt discrimination and abuse, reviled by the Christian world that needs to lean on him and his services. (At the time, lending money and charging interest was forbidden by the Church, the sin of usury.) And this is no simple business transaction for Shylock: his daughter, Jessica, has run off with a Christian man, breaking her father's heart, leaving Shylock looking to unleash his fury on someone, anyone in what he sees as the offensive Gentile world.

Though Collins is from Texas, she speaks with an English accent, leaving Pacino the only one sounding like an American; in some respects it's like an old-time Hollywood picture (Spartacus, say, or Ben-Hur), in which the Romans are played by British actors, the Jews and slaves by Americans. Radford makes great use of his locations, but it doesn't exactly feel like he's honoring authorial intention—Shakespeare certainly never saw Venice, and his characters here are no more Italian than his Cleopatra is Egyptian. On the other hand, when the opportunity presents itself to shoot in a city as beautiful and photogenic as this one, jump on it. When Shylock's story winds up, the plot loses most of its motor; Radford has winnowed the play admirably, but I've always found the last act, with its incessant talk of the ring the ring the ring, to be close to insufferable, the nattering of the privileged and the stupid, the Renaissance equivalent of the classes skewered in something like The Bonfire of the Vanities. But that's a discussion for a literature class; Radford's film elegantly tells Shakespeare's story, and is in many respects a paragon of adapting a classic to a new medium. 

Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: A


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio2.35:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Colors are occasionally erratic, but there seems to be little or no scratching or debris.

Image Transfer Grade: B

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
Dolby Digital

Audio Transfer Review: Rheumy-eyed Jeremy Irons frequently favors the low, sonorous tones, and they can sometimes get lost on the low end of this transfer; also, Radford and his production team have layered in a lot of ambient noise and sound effects, which can be atmospheric, but also occasionally obscure the verse.

Audio Transfer Grade: B- 

Disc Extras

Static menu with music
Scene Access with 28 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in French with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
5 Other Trailer(s) featuring Being Julia, In My Country, House of Flying Daggers, Cirque du soleil: Solstrom, Creature Comforts: The Complete Series
1 Documentaries
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Michael Radford and Lynn Collins
Weblink/DVD-ROM Material
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extras Review: Director Michael Radford and his Portia, Lynn Collins, provide a commentary track that's brimming with details about the shoot: we learn what was shot in Venice, what on a soundstage, and what in Luxembourg, where a miniature set of Venice has been constructed. (Bless them for avoiding Vegas.) There's also a good amount of talk on the working methods for each of the actors, especially when it comes to Pacino, who peaks (they say) on take 7 or 8, but then likes to get in a good dozen or so more. Hoo-ah! The Merchant of Venice: Shakespeare Through the Lens (29m:30s) is loaded with clips from the feature, along with all the principal cast members reflecting on their parts, and observations from the director and Cary Brokaw, one of the film's producers. Weblinks are provided to a couple of Sony sites, as well as to a teacher's guide, emphasizing using the film as a classroom tool. So, yes, you will have to know this for the exam.

Extras Grade: B-

Final Comments

A smart, fluid and elegant Shakespearean adaptation, one that balances cinematic invention with appropriate reverence for the text. If you're familiar with the play you'll appreciate the strong work from the actors and from director Michael Radford; or even if you're watching this for class tomorrow instead of doing the reading, you'll get a fair sense of what the Shakespearean text is all about.

Jon Danziger 2005-05-09