A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

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.

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July 6, 2011 - Posted by | daily reviews | , , , ,

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