Lynn Collins and Heather Goldenhersh in The Merchant of Venice.
I find that when watching Shakespeare, for the first five minutes or so, all I can focus upon is the language and verse. By the end of the film however, if it's done well, I've forgotten that they are speaking any other way than normal. A transition made even easier with a brilliant cast of actors as is the case with this latest Shakespearian adaptation for the big screen.
Having never seen or read The Merchant of Venice, I was able to watch this version completely open-minded. Although I am certain there were alterations from the stage version, I was blissfully unaware of them in a way that a student of Shakespeare would not be and can therefore not fault the film for any changes.
The story opens in Venice, with young Bassanio (Fiennes) seeking to borrow money from his friend Antonio (Irons) to enable Bassanio to pursue the Portia (Collins). Their relationship is only hinted at with looks and suggestive language, but it is clear that Antonio is in love Bassanio, although the movie never reveals if their relationship was consummated, or if Bassanio's love was merely platonic. Antonio, unable to provide Bassanio with the money himself, takes a loan for him from the Jewish moneylender Shylock (Pacino). Shylock, agrees to lend Bassanio the money, but his choice of collateral is one pound of Antonio's flesh.
Of all the characters in the film, two of them stand out.
Shylock is the most sympathetic. Like all Jews of the period, he is forbidden from owning or operating a business; therefore, his only means of support is the lending of money with interest. The Catholic Church considered such an act a sin and therefore he is looked down upon, cursed and spit upon by the very same people who seek to borrow money from him, including Antonio. Over the course of the film, he loses his daughter and nearly everything else that he deems of value. Pacino delivers an Oscar worthy performance in the role.
Although there are many famous female characters in Shakespeare's plays, most of them are weak. Portia stands out among all of the Bard's creations as one of the strongest. Rather than letting events play out and accepting the outcome, as it seems she will do at the beginning of the play, she takes an active part in the proceedings and affects the final outcome herself.
Along with the beautiful language, the movie is beautiful to look at as well. Filmed in Venice, on the canals and in the ancient houses, the cinematography is very well done.
Perhaps due to the adaptation, The Merchant of Venice is the most contemporary and adult of all the Shakespearian films that I have seen. Too many of the movies based on his work come across as something you're forced to watch or read for a high school English class and are self-consciously literary. Pleasantly this one, without losing the art of Shakespeare's language, manages to be a gripping and intriguing film.
Photos © Copyright Sony Pictures Classics (2004)