This `Merchant of Venice' is a tough sell

Tale of religious hate never catches fire

Movie Review

February 25, 2005|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Mel Gibson should have directed the movie version of The Merchant of Venice. Unafraid of reviving and fomenting anti-Semitic stereotypes, Gibson would have given moviegoers a Shylockian event to get riled up about. Michael Radford, an ultra-responsible filmmaker (he's best known for Il Postino), takes a middle-of-the road approach with this retelling of Shakespeare. He lays out from the opening titles the background of religious hatred that helps determine why the Jewish moneylender Shylock (Al Pacino) demands a pound of flesh from his Christian debtor, the merchant Antonio (Jeremy Irons), when Antonio loses all his wealth in overseas expeditions.

Those who don't know already will learn that Jews became moneylenders because they weren't allowed to own property and because hypocritical Christians couldn't become usurers, only clients. In one of the opening shots, we see Antonio hurl a healthy gob of spit at Shylock. By the time Shylock's daughter Jessica (Zuleikha Robinson) runs off with a Gentile who is part of Antonio's circle, Radford provides the moneylender with more than enough reasons to desire vengeance.

Yet Radford attempts to play completely straight - that is, for charm and laughs - the romantic comedy that catalyzes the plot. Antonio secures the loan because his bosom buddy Bassanio (Joseph Fiennes) needs money in order to woo a world-class catch named Portia (Lynn Collins). There's potentially sublime poetic nonsense in seeing suitors from as far as Morocco arrive at Portia's estate in Belmont to choose among gold, silver and leaden chests, one of which contains her portrait. But Radford treats the Venetian scenes so harshly that the contrast is jarring, like snippets from Macbeth alternating with bits from A Midsummer Night's Dream.

The two parts come together in the climactic trial, where Portia, disguised as a distinguished jurist, saves Antonio's bacon from the angry and implacable Jew's knife. Radford wants us to note the deep ugliness in the beautiful people's casual anti-Semitism even as we cheer their success at rescuing Antonio. Right after Shylock's hatred of Antonio reaches its hideous peak, Antonio, with regal sleaziness, quietly mocks the idea of having to "question with the Jew" ("You may as well go stand upon the beach/And bid the main flood bate his usual height"). But the only pleasure you can take from Radford's evenhandedness is intellectual. Dramatically, he arrives at a stalemate.

On the plus side, Irons once again proves peerless at elegant melancholy, and Pacino's mulishness has a genuine kick to it. And the movie overflows with juicy visual details. Radford's decadent Venice bursts with bare-breasted prostitutes and nonstop masqueraders. The director crams Shylock's ghetto full of ethnic local color: Usurers do business next to kosher butchers.

It makes for quite a rumpus, but the material never catches fire. Radford tries in vain to turn having things both ways into a virtue.

The Merchant of Venice

Starring Al Pacino, Jeremy Irons, Joseph Fiennes

Directed by Michael Radford

Released by Sony Picture Classics

Rated R

Time 125 minutes

Sun Score **

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