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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice
William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice
Columbia/Tri-Star // R // May 10, 2005
List Price: $26.96 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Holly E. Ordway | posted April 24, 2005 | E-mail the Author
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The movie

I love Shakespeare, so any new adaptation of a Shakespeare play gets bumped to the top of my to-watch list. The lavish 2004 film William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, then, was certainly one that I was eager to see. I ended up having very mixed feelings about it, though; it's a film that I ended up admiring in parts on an intellectual level, without ever really liking it as a film.

The strength of this adaptation lies mainly in its visual appeal. Michael Radford's adaptation of the play is highly faithful to its source in terms of the play's text (as the full title "William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice" indicates), but its execution takes full advantage of the film format, making it into a genuine film rather than a "filmed play." Unconstrained by the limits of the stage, this film sets its events in a variety of visually interesting locations. We get to see inside the Jewish ghetto, Shylock's home, and even a synagogue; we cruise down the canals of Venice in gondoliers; we pass through bustling marketplaces thronging with a mix of merchants, moneylenders, prostitutes, and gentlemen; we see the interiors of lavishly appointed palaces and state buildings. Costumes are lavish without being stylized, and the cinematography is handled nicely as well.

I was initially surprised by the idea of Al Pacino playing Shylock, but he carries the role well, giving us a dark and intense Shylock who shifts slowly from bitterness to an active thirst for revenge. Shylock has several notable monologues in the film (including the famous "if you prick us, do we not bleed?" monologue), and Pacino quite sensibly handles them with restraint rather than grandiose scenery-chewing. Jeremy Irons (as Antonio) and Joseph Fiennes (as Bassanio) are likewise quite believable in their roles, seeming completely comfortable with the Shakespearean dialogue and historical setting. Unfortunately, the solid performances don't quite carry across the entire cast. I was never convinced by Lynn Collins as Portia; to start with, her put-on British accent never sounds quite right. If the filmmakers wanted a British accent, there are plenty of great British actresses who can produce the genuine article: why cast a merely OK U.S. actress and make her take on a phony accent? Later in the play, as Portia's much-vaunted wisdom is called upon, Collins falls short again; she's passable as the lady-love to be courted, but doesn't seem to have the dramatic power to take the role any further. Still, Collins aside, the cast is quite solid overall.

So the film is visually appealing, and the performances are quite good overall... yet I never felt that old Shakespearean magic. I could admire the technique and appreciate the visual appeal, but something never quite felt right. It wasn't until I started thinking about how Radford adapted the play that I realized what was at the root of my dissatisfaction. There's no question that most films have to cut the original play considerably in order to fit it into a traditional movie running time, and The Merchant of Venice, at two hours and eleven minutes, is no exception. So clearly some adaptation has to happen; the question is, what? I'm generally in favor of Shakespearean films that stick closely to the original text, but at the same time I like to see imagination and flair when it comes to making them work on-screen. Kenneth Branagh's Henry V, Julie Taymore's Titus, and Mel Gibson's Hamlet are all examples of the different ways this can be done with great success. Why doesn't Radford's The Merchant of Venice join this group of great adaptations?

Consider the original material: for the modern day, I think the plays that work best are those with a strong, central dramatic thread that provides the core storyline. Think of Othello, Macbeth, or Hamlet: there may be sub-plots, but they're clearly subordinate to a very interesting central storyline; in contrast, The Merchant of Venice has a handful of story threads that compete with each other, leaving viewers with no compelling central narrative. Do we focus on Bassanio's attempt to woo Portia? On the elopement of Jessica, Shylock's daughter, which seems like it's going to be a much more important element than it turns out to be? On Shylock's bond with Antonio, in which Antonio will pay a pound of his own flesh if he forfeits on paying back a debt?

Notice that my examples of Shakespeare plays with a strong central narrative are all tragedies. The Merchant of Venice, technically speaking, is one of Shakespeare's comedies... not a tragedy. That's not to say that it has a lot of laughs in it, but rather that it ends happily. In the original play, the focus is on the various couples and their romantic ups and downs, and by the end, everybody is happily married and delighted with the turn of events. Shylock and his vengeful quest to get his pound of flesh is a side plot, one that threatens to derail the happy ending, to be sure, but it's not the main point of the story.

Putting Shylock's story as one of the main elements of the film has the peculiar effect of making The Merchant of Venice work much more like a tragedy than a comedy. That's clearly the director's intent, with how clearly he shows Shylock's suffering and with the rather melancholy tone of the film's conclusion. But how can you turn a play inside-out while still being faithful to it? Not very easily. I think that's why The Merchant of Venice never quite "clicks" as a film, and why structurally it feels awkward; sub-plots are being pushed to take on the importance of main plots, but without the other material being altered accordingly. Modern audiences may not be entirely comfortable with the way that Shakespeare handled the character of Shylock or the question of antisemitism, but the play is the way it is; as written, The Merchant of Venice simply is not a tragedy focusing on Shylock. Could it have been re-interpreted in that way? Absolutely yes – but not while also trying to stick to a faithful rendition of the original play.

Ironically, then, had Radford been less scrupulous about sticking to the original text of the play, the film would probably have been more completely successful; as it is, it's balanced uncomfortably on the fence between being a radical re-interpretation and being a faithful rendition of the original play. One or the other would have worked better; trying for both makes for an odd mix that never quite gels.

The DVD

Video

William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice appears in an attractive anamorphic widescreen transfer, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics. It's presented in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 2.35:1, with a clean print. Some edge enhancement is present, but overall the appearance is lovely. Colors are rich and highly saturated, with skin tones looking natural and all the scenes exhibiting nice subtleties of shading and detail.

Audio

The soundtrack is a respectable Dolby 5.1 track, which provides a clean and attractive-sounding listening experience. The surround sound isn't particularly aggressive, but it's used on occasion to give a sense of immersion. Dialogue is clean and crisp, and for the most part is always easy to understand. I did note at times that the background music was a bit too strong in relation to the actors' voices, which is not a great move in a film that's using original Shakespearean dialogue, which the audience will really have to pay attention to.

French subtitles are included, but I was disappointed to see that there are no English subtitles, which would have been helpful to viewers who aren't familiar with the Shakespearean style.

Extras

The main special feature is a full-length audio commentary from director Michael Radford and actor Lynn Collins. It's a reasonably good track, with some interesting material presented, and a steady flow of commentary for the most part.

A 29-minute documentary is also included, called "The Merchant of Venice: Shakespeare Through the Lens." Though it does have some clips from the film (more than I'd like), it incorporates some interesting interview segments with director and cast, and will be worth watching for those who enjoyed the film.

Trailers for The Merchant of Venice, Being Julia, In My Country, House of Flying Daggers, Cirque du Soleil: Solstrom, and Creature Comforts are also included, as is a weblink to a teacher's guide.

Final thoughts

In the end, I was dissatisfied with director Michael Radford's choices in adapting The Merchant of Venice to the screen; he attempts to make a comedy into a tragedy while still being faithful to the original text, and the resulting conflicting forces put the film at cross-purposes. Even so, it's certainly quite a respectable attempt. Visually and technically, it's a handsome, well-crafted film, and it has a generous handful of excellent actors. It's a film that I'd probably recommend to viewers who are intrigued by the play and know what they're getting into, but it's not one that works sufficiently well that I'd give it a broader recommendation on its own merits. I'll give it a positive "rent it" recommendation; it may be that the sum of its parts will be more for some viewers than it was for me.

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