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Merchant Of Venice


Director Michael Radford’s accomplished adaptation of Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice” mines the humour of its source material with an expert hand. But the play – fuelled by passion, intergenerational misunderstanding, hypocrisy, religious intolerance and entrapment – is also a complex and disturbing work and this fiery retelling blazes with a visceral sense of atmosphere and profoundly evocative characterizations by Al Pacino, Jeremy Irons and Joseph Fiennes.

In the powerful and putatively liberal city state of Venice – which Radford depicts as a rainy, smouldering maze – Shylock (Pacino) has grown wealthy through the “abomination” of moneylending and faces indignity or danger when he ventures beyond the Jewish quarter. In the same city, though in a different world, lives Antonio (Irons), a Christian merchant beset by worry over the fate of his trading vessels and his increasing isolation from his best friend Bassanio (Fiennes). The younger man has fallen in love with the beautiful Portia (emerging star Lynn Collins) and seeks to go abroad to win her hand. When Antonio, cash-strapped but still possessed of good credit, stakes Bassanio for a loan of three thousand ducats from Shylock, a bond is sealed, the risk of which is one pound of Antonio’s flesh.

The performances are exceptional: there is splendid chemistry between Fiennes and Collins, while Kris Marshall (familiar to Festival audiences as “Colin, God of Sex” in last year’s Love Actually) exudes great aplomb as Bassanio’s friend Gratiano. Surrounding his Antonio with an aura of abject exhaustion, Irons (who also stars in the Festival’s Opening Night Gala, Being Julia) portrays a merchant overshadowed by morbidity from the start, and Pacino brings tremendous resonance to the intricate role of Shylock, who suffers loss upon loss before reaching his breaking point.

Careful to maintain the plot’s comic subterfuge, cross-dressing and last-minute reversals, Radford also draws out the significantly contrasting moods of the last act. There is much sexiness and romance in the quintessentially Shakespearean double marriage, but still more resonant are Antonio’s loneliness as he is brushed aside by the newlywed Bassanio, and Shylock’s final, tragic exile from his faith and his community.


Pictures From 2004 Venice Film Festival