There has never been a film of The Merchant of Venice before. This is not surprising. Different Shakespeare plays give trouble to different ages: we are not at ease with Measure for Measure, The Taming of the Shrew or The Merchant because we do not share his views on, respectively, chastity, feminism and anti-Semitism. Also, the star part is neither large nor sympathetic.
This is very much Michael Radford’s version. The director, whose work includes White Mischief and Il Postino, has adapted and cut, introducing nothing eccentric but successfully injecting a pace and thrust more suited to a film. Also, much can be done with a glance or a gesture in close-up that would be lost on the stage. All this is immediately apparent. Antonio (Jeremy Irons) has spat not upon the Jewish gaberdene of Shylock (Al Pacino) but full in his face before a word has been spoken. This is personal. Somehow in the past when Shylock directly refers to this, I had always taken it as a general statement about ‘you Christians’; not here. Then in the first scene Antonio’s wintry face lights when he sees handsome Bassanio (Joseph Fiennes) approaching. He denies he is in love but we do not believe him.
The situation is laid before us swiftly and clearly. Antonio has wasted his fortune and needs to recoup with a good marriage. Later, there is a suggestion that he has some acquaintance with Portia, but here we have to accept that our hero is a calculating fortune-hunter. Antonio is willing to stake this venture but, his fortune being tied up in ships at sea, he has to borrow from the Jew. This is against his principles, but that does not stop him being morally superior about it. Pacino is immediately impressive, restrained but clearly a force and intelligence to be reckoned with, enjoying having his enemy as a supplicant and spinning the deal out until Antonio loses patience. Then there is the difficulty of the extraordinary bond. Why does Shylock ask for a pound of flesh, forgoing interest? Shakespeare has a way of dropping such problems into his plays and not supplying an answer; and, such is his genius, instead of dismissing them as poor plotting or carelessness, we spend hundreds of years pondering. Here, with animosity established, it seems like a long shot, which Shylock cannot really hope will succeed but which gives him pleasure anyway.
A different sort of problem in this play is Belmont, with Portia (Lynn Collins) and those ghastly, tedious, repetitive suitors, forever choosing the wrong box and so not winning her hand. (Yet another, Launcelot Gobbo, his son and the dog, as unamusing a trio as any in Shakespeare and these are high standards, has been cut to acceptable proportions, that is to say, to almost nothing.) The answer, not quite so drastic but again satisfactory and including cuts, is to give us brief glances at a fairytale princess and a sunlit world. The contrast with dark, sinister, rainy Venice is strongly marked and both are a delight to behold, reminiscent of familiar paintings. When they meet at the trial, a Botticelli maiden is confronting the world of Caravaggio.
The trial is a wonderful scene that can scarcely fail. Shylock is obdurate, sympathy for him draining away, and, a brilliant filmic addition, a shot of his fellow Jews shows them not sharing his relish at all — this is going to do them nothing but harm in the long run. Above all, as never before, I felt the full force of how shocking the threat to Antonio is. He is not just going to be executed but tortured before this civilised well-dressed crowd, his flesh slowly cut from his living body. You know it is not going to happen but you know it slightly less than you do in the theatre. Then Portia, who allows Antonio to suffer every second that she can (why?), produces her clever quibble, ‘not a drop of blood’, and the Establishment has won again. The outsider is vanquished.
All then behave extremely badly, crowing triumphantly and extracting every jot of revenge while claiming that they are showing mercy as Shylock did not, but that is not emphasised here. Things are wound up swiftly, the climax is over and we face yet another problem, the anti-climax of comedy and romance and rings exchanged, lost and recovered, and marriage. Do we care? Where are we having dinner? Again, tactful cutting carries us through and there is a serious, almost unspoken understanding between Portia who is gaining Bassanio and Antonio who is losing him. A fine film.