A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 493 – Merchant of Venice (2004)

Merchant of Venice – July 6th, 2011

When I was visiting England in high school the girls I was traveling with and the British girls we were staying with decided to go see a play being put on by the boys at a school nearby. The school we did the exchange with was all girls, but they had a boys’ school they had a connection to and the schools generally attended each others’ events. So off we went to see a bunch of 16 year olds perform Merchant of Venice more for class credit than love of the Bard. It was about as bad as you might expect. Someone involved had chosen to set the play in London in the 1970s, with the characters all turned into stockbrokers and the like and sporting horrible orange tans and speaking in inexplicable and horrifically bad Cockney accents. I didn’t get along terribly well with some of the other girls, but that night it didn’t matter. We all agreed that it sucked and we all left during the intermission. It was just too painful to sit through the rest.

I would say that I’ve been scarred by that performance and the tans and the awkwardness, but I went on to take a full year of Shakespeare after that. And then I did more in college. Given how much Shakespeare we’ve watched for this project already and how much I’ve enjoyed it all, from Twelfth Night to Macbeth, I’d have to say I didn’t suffer too badly. Still, I’ve always wondered about the choices made for that performance. This is a problematic play no matter how you look at it. A key plot point involving the title character involves a racial stereotype and his mockery and undoing. Take this as a comedy and you’re faced with the dilemma of how to handle the character of Shylock and his plot. Take this as a drama, which this 2004 production has done, and you have a host of other issues to deal with. And if you try to have it both ways, well, I suspect that the results would be patchy and uneven. Which really is my issue with the play in general.

I was somewhat dreading watching this for the above reasons. I have issues with the play. I find it to be a strange and troubling one from many sides and I am of the opinion that any performance of it would need to be done carefully. And this movie tried. It tried so damn hard. I can find no fault whatsoever with any of the performances here. I can find no fault with the sets or the costumes or the cinematography. It is a beautiful film and excellently performed by a cast full of people I recognize, whether they’re big names or not. But it is impossible to perform this without running into the play’s issues and while this movie presents the story entirely as drama, and I appreciate that, the issues are still present, causing the whole thing trouble.

Since this movie is working so hard at making this story entirely drama/tragedy there is obviously going to be a strong Shylock. If you’re not familiar with the plot, it involves a merchant in Venice loaning his friend an enormous sum of money in order to woo an heiress (whose father’s will specifies that she marry the suitor who chooses the right chest in a riddle/test – so wooing seems to be somewhat unnecessary). Not having the money himself, he goes to a moneylender, who demands that the merchant promise a pound of his own flesh as bond if he cannot repay the money with a set amount of interest. Of course the merchant ends up not being able to pay and the moneylender demands his pound of flesh, but thanks to the wiles of the heiress, the moneylender is not only denied his bond but also forced to leave his faith and sign over his home, wealth and belongings to the merchant and the city. And then there’s a whole chunk after that where the heiress and her maid trick their new husbands into giving away their wedding rings so they can lambaste them later on.

I do like the idea of playing the Shylock plot in historical context, as a real tragedy. Where it’s more about the fall of a man who’s been driven to extreme ends due to mistreatment and prejudice. As Shylock, Al Pacino delivers an excellent performance. The movie goes to great pains to explain just what sorts of restrictions and hatred Jewish people faced in Venice in this time period. Restricted to a specific part of the city, forced to wear identifying clothing, unable to make livings in many ways, reviled and scorned. And while there is a line from Shylock later about the merchant, Antonio, spitting on him, the movie actually shows it. There’s no doubt here that the audience is supposed to sympathize with Shylock to an extent. Antonio, and the friend he’s taking out the loan for (Bassanio) aren’t really supposed to be seen as all that great. In fact, in conjunction with the later marriage plot, Bassanio’s portrayal here strikes me as fairly negative. He gets his friend to take out a loan since he’s apparently driven his own estate into debt. He lets said friend put his own flesh on the line. And he spends an enormous amount to woo a woman who can’t choose her own husband. And then he goes and gives away the one thing she made him promise not to lose.

I really do think that Al Pacino gives an fantastic performance here, which I’ve mentioned. And I think there are many amazing actors arrayed around him and the play’s focus is put on him as much as it can be. The thing is, it’s not a play about Shylock. Not entirely. It’s about Antonio’s plight and Bassanio’s romance with Portia. The rest of Shylock’s plot involves his daughter, Jessica, running away and stealing all his money. He’s betrayed by his daughter and obsessed with revenge and it all focuses on his religion. There is no way to get away from that, so this movie dives right in. But it forces the focus onto Shylock, which makes everything else that happens seem like it doesn’t quite belong.

The trick at the end, with the heiress (Portia) and her maid (Nerissa), is very much a classic comedic device you can find in a lot of Shakespearean comedies. Twelfth Night and A Midsummer Night’s Dream come immediately to mind. The whole romance plot is mildly comedic, with the three chests and the over-the-top suitors that Portia doesn’t like and tries to sabotage. There’s a lot going on there, through the whole movie, that’s clearly meant to be taken lightly. Except because this movie is doing everything as a drama the romance plot is done dramatically as well – with only a tiny touch of comedy. But the ending, where Portia and Nerissa are angry at their husbands? That’s not played as comedy. Which leads to it feeling like a very weak drama indeed. Which in turn weakens the whole attempt to make the entire movie dramatic. Honestly, I think it would play a whole lot better if Portia was treated less as a romantic figure and more as a Puck, causing trouble wherever she goes.
I find this movie very frustrating, largely because I find the play very frustrating. It has some amazing speeches and they are performed excellently. It has some interesting turns and the movie shows them well. But it’s uneven in terms of tone. If one took out that ending, and kept Portia’s suitors more serious then perhaps it could work. If Portia was portrayed as more devious and mischievous then maybe it could work that way too. But both options would require some fairly heavy editing. As it is, I have to admire a well-crafted movie while remaining irritated by the script. Yes, I am criticising Shakespeare. It’s likely a product of its time but that doesn’t mean I have to refrain from criticism. It’s still a troublesome play that requires anyone performing it to really consider their choices carefully. And no, setting it in London in the 1970s does not qualify as a careful choice.

July 6, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

The Merchant of Venice (2004)

July 6, 2011

The Merchant of Venice (2004)

I bought this movie at a time when I was collecting Shakespearean adaptations. I picked up some real gems at that time. Things like the Ian McKellen Macbeth and his Richard III. I had never seen or watched Merchant of Venice before I watched this for the first time about five years ago, so I didn’t really know what to expect. What I got is a valiant attempt to make a play that is powerfully dated by its racist stereotyped villain work for modern audiences. This movie tries oh so hard to make this play palatable but the end result is a strange sort of tragedy with incongruous comedic romance plots wrapped around it.

A quick plot summary: young Bassiano is a rogue with money problems. He believes that he has found the solution to his money woes though – he has heard about a rich princess who he hopes to woo and wed. He goes to his dearest friend (and lover according to this adaptation – and there’s a lot of material there to support that assertion) the merchant Antonio to borrow the funds necessary to appear to be a prince when wooing the princess. Antonio is fairly over-extended though with several ships out on various trade missions around the world, and doesn’t have the money to lend. Instead the two of them got to Shylock, a mad Jew, who agrees to lend them the money for three months on one stipulation: if Antonio does not repay the debt Shylock will claim a pound of Antonio’s flesh as his bond.

Meanwhile Shylock’s manservant Launcelott decides, for no reason that this adaptation cares to make clear, to defect to Bassiano’s court rather than continuing to serve Shylock. Then Shylock’s daughter Jessica elopes to wed Lorenzo, a friend of Bassiano’s. This drives Shylock into a rage and he swears to exact revenge by taking his bond, the pound of flesh, from Antonio, whose ships have all been lost and who is destitute and unable to repay his debt.

All this is, I think, meant to be a mildly serious tangent to the play that provides some tension for the third act. Somewhat like the whole thing with Don John tricking Claudio and Hero in Much Ado. The actual main comedy romance part of the plot is about Bassiano gaining his new fortune and the unlikely means by which he does it. The goal of his affections, the princess Portia, is bound by a promise to her deceased father to wed the man who chooses from three chests the one which contains her portrait. She has suitors from all corners of the world, most of whom she despises, but only Bassiano correctly chooses the plain copper chest instead of the fancy gold or silver ones. It’s a flimsy fairy tale plot that doesn’t feel like it fits in the same movie as the dark tale of betrayal and vengeance that is the Shylock plot. After Bassiano has won the love and the hand of Portia, and his philandering right hand man Gratiano has abruptly decided to settle down with her handmaiden Nerissa, the boys rush back to Venice to try and save Antonio from the mad Jew.

All seems lost in Venice, and it appears that Shylock will be given permission to cut out Antonio’s heart as the pound of flesh specified in the contract until a brilliant young doctor and his companion arrive in court (actually Portia and Nerissa in unconvincing male drag) to save the day by using the very loopholes of Venician law that Shylock himself was exploiting to not only deny him his bond but to divest him of half his property and put his life at the mercy of the local governor.

The big problem is that the movie exerts so much effort to humanise the ranting, grasping stereotype that is the play’s villain Shylock. I’m pretty sure that he’s written to be a sort of doddering single minded fool along the lines of Dogberry from Much Ado. The play is supposed to be a farcical comedy after all with cross dressing and romance and this crazy man who would rather exact revenge on perceived slights than accept a perfectly reasonable offer of money. I’m pretty sure that we’re meant to loathe Shylock and celebrate in his eventual defeat, but we have no particular reason to do so aside from his being Jewish. In fact, and this is where things get really difficult, Shakespeare gives him some reasonable motivations for being such a bastard and even provides him with a couple of speeches that very well describe his plight. This movie concentrates a lot on those hints and those speeches to make Shylock a sympathetic character, which makes his ultimate downfall feel like the tragic end to the play.

Al Pachino, as Shylock, is the undisputed star of this movie. Everybody else provides wonderful performances as well, particularly the noble and gracious interpretation of Antonio by Jeremy Irons, but it is Shylock who is the most fascinating character. This film spends a lot of effort placing the tale in a historical context and stressing that Jews in Venice were much persecuted, so that when Shylock rants at the start of the play about being a cur in the eyes of Antonio we know what he’s going on about. Pachino makes Shylock a tragic, broken figure, driven mad by the loss of his daughter. He’s not a laughable buffoon at all, and his obsession with his bond seems less insane and more desperate. The material is there in the play to support this interpretation, in particular the “if you prick us do we not bleed” speech right smack in the middle where Shylock implies that his desire for vengeance is fueled by prejudices piled upon him by the Christian aristocracy. He even has a speech in the courtroom that has abolitionist tendencies, talking about the two facedness of the court in denying him his inhuman legal right to cut out a man’s heart while at the same time engaging in the inhuman slave trade. By the end of the courtroom scene, when Shylock is broken and weeping on the floor, you can feel nothing but pity for this man for all the wrongs done to him simply due to his creed. This is meant, I believe, to be a great victory for the heroes of the play, but in this interpretation Shylock is as much a victim as a villain and the entire courtroom scene is high tragedy (in spite of the levity of the female drag.)

Then the play goes on for another half an hour after Shylock gets his comeuppance with nonsense about Portia and Nerissa playing malicious pranks on their new husbands. The romance plot is so inconsequential and whimsical after the drama and tragedy of the lengthy courtroom scene that precedes it that it simply doesn’t fit in this adaptation. It feels like inappropriate and flippant padding, leaving the movie with an unsatisfying feel to its resolution.

I would be curious to see a version of this play which tries to do the whole thing as comedy. It would be uncomfortable to watch because we’re supposed to hate the Jewish money lender for being Jewish, which is the only reason that his ranting would seem comedic rather than tragic, but perhaps it would not feel so disjointed and awkward. Perhaps the play could be adapted to make Shylock a money-grubbing Scrooge like banker and drop the Jewish aspect entirely. Make him Bernie Madoff – a banker we can feel comfortable hating. I’d really like to see if that would make the play funny again.

July 6, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment