Writer-director Michael Radford (IL POSTINO) attempts to recuperate Shylock, Shakespeare's notoriously merciless Jewish moneylender, by transforming him from villain to tragic victim. However, in the process he forgets that the play, for all its ugliness, is meant to be played as a comedy. Venice, 1596. Intent on wooing Portia (Lynn Collins), his lady love, but lacking the funds to do so in high style, Bassanio (Joseph Fiennes) turns to his best friend, wealthy Venetian merchant Antonio (Jeremy Irons), for a loan of 3000 ducats. Antonio, who's been waiting for a fleet of merchant ships to arrive home with his fortune, doesn't have the money on hand but allows Bassanio the use of his good name as credit with one of the city's Jewish moneylenders. Bassanio turns to greedy Shylock (Al Pacino, sometimes sounding like Mel Brooks' 2000 Year Old Man), but as soon as the spiteful usurer realizes that Antonio, who publicly spat on Shylock just a few days earlier, has promised to make good on the loan, he insists on a special bond. If after three months Antonio is unable to repay the money, he must willingly sacrifice one pound of his flesh. Antonio, loath to deny his younger friend anything (Bradford strongly intimates that Antonio's gay), agrees to Shylock's perverse demand, never imagining that the day will come when he loses his fortune and must forfeit his life for a mere 3000 ducats. Whether or not Shakespeare himself was anti-Semitic is a subject of longtime debate, but it's ultimately beside the point: It's possible that he never met a Jew in his entire life, for most had already been banished from England's green and pleasant land. His portrayal is based instead on a host of negative but widely accepted literary stereotypes, from which Shakespeare created one of his most enduring scoundrels. Shylock's unequivocal villainy makes staging the play in the comedic spirit in which it was written nearly impossible without offending modern sensibilities. Radford and Pacino succeed in gaining some sympathy for the man by playing up the "do we not bleed?" angle and underplaying just about everything else, but in the end this dull film puts the audience in the unconscionable position of rooting for those who successfully strip Shylock of his wealth, his dignity and even his religion. But uncomfortable as the film is, it's a beautiful, sensuous experience: Knowing there's no replacement for La Serenissima herself, Radford and cinematographer Benoit Delhomme shot much of the film on location, gaining access to the Rialto Bridge and the Ducal Palace, and capturing much of Venice's gloomy mystery.
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- Released: 2004
- Rating: R
- Review: Writer-director Michael Radford (IL POSTINO) attempts to recuperate Shylock, Shakespeare's notoriously merciless Jewish moneylender, by transforming him from villain to tragic victim. However, in the process he forgets that the play, for all its ugliness,… (more)