Merchant Of Venice
9 out of 10
Shakespeare's Final Play
With over 630 films to his credit, William Shakespeare is easily Hollywood's most successful writer of all time, yet despite being written before 1600 AD, the Merchant of Venice has never before been produced as a film since the advent of colour and sound. WHY? What is so different about this work? Could it be that despite involving the themes of love, betrayal, loyalty, humor and tragedy like his other plays, it also examines themes unpopular and too taboo for commercial enterprises in generations before our own - racism, homosexuality and the whole relationship of commerce, morality and the law?
In 1596, in a possible parallel of New York City or the Kuwait of today, Venice was the most powerful and cosmopolitan in the world. A commercial empire in a tiny city built on mud and sand flats in a marsh, it was a place where everything and everyone could be bought, sold and traded - indeed even its entire army consisted of mercenaries hired from other countries so that its own citizens would not have to soil their own hands. Rich, but below so many's contempt was Venice as the unacceptable face of commercialism that had Shakespeare written today, he would undoubtedly titled it "The Spammer Of Venice."
Actually filmed in Venice, one of the most beautiful cities in the world, it is a lavish and visually arresting picture with elaborate period costumes and sets, shot in the dark renaissance tones and contains a rich, haunting soundtrack by British composer Jocelyn Pook. It opens on Rialto Bridge, with Antonio, a local merchant with several ships, spitting in the face of a Shylock, a wealthy moneylender during a protest in the street as one did to Jews in that time, so hated were they. Even so, it would seem to be an act that leaves Antonio embarrassed. His friend, Bessanio is hoping wed the rich and beautiful Portia and asks the aging merchant Antonio (Jeremy Irons) for a loan of 3000 ducats which must be borrowed from one the much discriminated against money lenders in the city's foundry. Meeting once again Shylock, he should have expected a blunt refusal from the man he spat upon. Realising that Antonio is gay, however, Shylock is quick to realize that he is likewise a member of a minority group. Instead of charging his normal exorbitant rates of interest, Shylock merely writes into his agreement one of the most legendary default clauses in history: if he is not paid back in 60 days, he can take a pound of Antonio's flesh, yet it is a deal both will live to regret.
The well known story of morality, fidelity, virtue, honour and the pound of flesh, the film version contains an honest attempt at the examination of the long history of religious tensions in Europe, explored through the seemly impossible romance of wealthy daughter Portia and penniless idle youth Bessanio. Although Shakespeare "toed the party line" to keep the police state of England under the Tudor monarchs happy by setting all of his messed up characters and plots with treachery in countries overseas because foreigners were not supposed to be able to run their own countries competently without the wisdom of England's rulers, he includes some very powerful speeches against the anti-sematism that was commonly accepted as a necessity at the time. Shylocks famous speech remains one of the truly great speeches against racism, proclaiming:
"Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die?"
History portrays Shylock so badly that he has become a term of abuse, the message of the story is clear, Shylock actually cares not for his 6,000 gold pieces in cash, but his only daughter who has ran away on a ship belonging to Antonio and persuaded to do so by members of his crew. With no other avenue, he is pursuing Antonio in the courts which he believes is the example set by Christians, as he further explains:
"And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that. If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example? Why, revenge. The villany you teach me, I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction."
Since the very days of Shakespeare, Shylock's ultimate demise at the hands of the legal system that utterly destroys his life would have seemed fair for his failure to show mercy, but now, in modern days, maybe can also see the play as a moral tale about the cruelty of legakl systems that particularly today regularly destroy people and their livelihoods on some technicality without mercy and miss the central point, in this case, Shylock's grief at the loss of his daughter.
Conversely, the character of Antonio is a particularly poignant one as it is the one character in his plays that Shakespeare is believed to have based on himself and says a lot about his view of himself. Despite being a successful man, Antonio is always in a fix as a result of helping others out of problems they have made for themselves. With all the usual ingenious plot twists of a Shakespeare work, however, where things are not as they seem, sadly, the story of Merchant of Venice was clearly based on Marlowe's "Jew of Malta " and has large portions of "Il Pecorone" by Gesta Romanorum.
Taking title role, Al Pacino produces an almost definitive Shylock. Indeed, with Jeremy Iron back on form and his putrid performance in the dismal "Dungeons & Dragons well behind him and actors like Kris Marshall of "Love Actually" and Mackenzie Crook of "Brothers Grimm", "Merchant Of Venice" has proven a second chance that many have grasped to show their talent and cast aside memories of their roles in some clunkers from the past.
With the subplots of the rings, the sealed boxes and the pound of flesh, "The Merchant Of Venice" has a clear theme weaved throughout it, that of integrity, of keeping one's promises and, as such is almost more appropriate to our contemporary world the it was at the end of the Fifteenth Century and in a production of such quality, this movie is more than a movie for the schoolroom; it is a treat for anyone to watch.
Film Critic: Robert L Thompsett