Related Articles: Movies, All

The Merchant of Venice

Pacino invigorates Shakespeare's Shylock

Director Michael Radford (Il Postino) has assembled a first-rate cast of veteran character actors for his faithful, no-frills interpretation of The Merchant of Venice, one of Shakespeare's most controversial plays. Yes, the anti-Semitism at the heart of the narrative remains, as it inevitably must in any honest approach to this problematic material. Yet Radford, who also adapted the screenplay, effectively emphasizes the chronological context of the Bard's tale -- late 16th century Italy -- and untangles its complexities, delivering a clearheaded film that clocks in at an economical 130 minutes.

That's not to say viewers won't need to keep a sharp ear to the dialogue; Shakespeare's richly textured prose has been manipulated only slightly to make it more digestible for casual moviegoers, and the integrity of his playful language is intact. Luckily, it's in capable hands. Al Pacino breathes his trademark mix of quiet intensity and fiery venom into the Shylock, the money-lender who famously demands a pound of flesh from Antonio (Jeremy Irons), a Christian merchant. Antonio borrows a sizeable sum to finance the carefree adventures of his best friend, Bassanio (Joseph Fiennes), but when a series of poor investments fail to pan out, he must look to the Shylock for mercy. The Shylock, embittered by a lifetime of degradation at the hands of haughty Venetian gentiles, is not in a forgiving mood.

As with most Shakespearean works, there are plenty of farcical subplots in Merchant of Venice, most of which involve Bassanio's attempts to woo the dazzling Portia (Lynn Collins). Even so, the crux of the plot is the struggle between Antonio and the Shylock, handled masterfully by Pacino and Irons, whose screen time is regrettably limited. For his part, Pacino wisely inhabits the role of the Shylock with restraint, saving his fire-and-brimstone theatrics for a memorable soliloquy in which he confronts his longtime oppressors -- not surprisingly, to no avail.

Pacino is supported flawlessly by his supporting cast. Fiennes (Shakespeare in Love) serves up a typically strong performance as the tempestuous Bassanio, while Collins, in her first major screen role, steals many a scene with her seductive gaze and impassioned delivery. The result is a smart, self-assured rendering of a vexing classic that stands the test of time, despite its outdated principles.

Rating: 4 stars out of 5