February 8, 2005

Tragic Vengeance

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It’s not by accident that Michael Radford ends his adaptation of The Merchant of Venice with the last lines of “Paradise Lost” fading on the soundtrack. His Venice is a fallen city, all its apparent rich civility sustained by a corrupt code. Like Milton’s poem, Shakespeare’s play radiates a brilliance that only barely outshines its flaws. And in this world, the most dynamic, charismatic figure is that of the devil — whose viciousness is matched only by his grief.

As Shylock, Al Pacino avoids the twin traps of the role: instead of a gleefully evil anti-Semitic stereotype of the 16th-century or a mewling, revisionist victim of the Twentieth, we have instead a decent man who allows his hatred to twist him into the monster his enemies have always believed him to be. Pacino’s portrayal and Radford’s direction grant Shylock the dignity of being a tragic villain instead of a comedic plot device. In doing so, the film becomes an incredibly disturbing exploration of the intolerability of being tolerated. The strength of this interpretation is more than proved by the presentation of the (in)famous “hath not a Jew eyes?” speech. This Shylock is not presenting a rhetorical exercise arguing against prejudice; he is a broken, vengeful man giving voice to a lifetime of impotent rage and explaining exactly why he has decided to kill someone. It’s terrifying, and since it’s delivered to two whores who couldn’t care less, it’s also pitiful.

The major weakness Radford fails to address is the utter banality of the main plot — the courtship of Bassanio (Joseph Finnes) and Portia (Lynn Collins). While Portia has at least her intelligence to recommend her, Bassanio has only his looks and neither actor manages to convince that the two are anything more than attractive pegs on which to hang a tale. The only time either Collins or Finnes justifies the expense of their admittedly exquisite costuming is when they share the screen with Jeremy Irons’ Antonio, the titular merchant who furnishes the money Bassanio needs because of his unrequited love.

The movement of Antonio’s affection from subtext to text is achieved by Irons with nothing more than his eyes and voice, which give the lie to the line he opens the film with: “In truth I know not why I am so sad.” He knows damn well why he’s miserable, and so does the audience. Irons’ initial scenes with Finnes work as a short essay on the sheer awfulness of loving someone who doesn’t love you and ensure that Antonio remains a sympathetic character instead of a saintly cipher. What makes this transformation even more remarkable is that the first time we see Antonio he’s spiting on Shylock as they pass each other in the street. Though the exchange is wordless and takes only a moment, the icy contempt in Antonio’s face and the suppressed outrage in Shylock’s seals both their fates.

True to the film’s moral complexity, Antonio is both a bigot and a wonderful friend; although he hates Shylock he borrows 3,000 ducats from him so that Bassanio can woo Portia. Shylock is too proud to profit from Antonio, so for a forfeit he requests a pound of flesh. Three months later, when the bond is due, all of Antonio’s ships have been lost, Shylock’s daughter Jessica has run off with her mother’s ring, her father’s money and a Christian husband and even though a lot of people get married and no one dies, what happens is a tragedy all the same.

The court scene where the case is decided is by far the best in the film. Radford stages it as a combination of nightmare and grotesque comedy, with events proceeding far too logically and quickly and a sense of overwhelming claustrophobia. Irons, with almost no lines, alternates between stoicism and sick fear while Pacino almost chokes on his hatred. Collins finally does something interesting with Portia, who appears dressed as a young male lawyer (because what’s a Shakespearian comedy without the cross dressing?). All of Portia’s brilliance is on display, but when Collins brightly says “the quality of mercy is not strained,” it’s obvious that Portia is a clever child parroting words she has only read and not lived. But she manages to save Antonio’s life on a technicality, and Antonio, torture chair now a throne, languidly pardons Shylock his — on the condition that Shylock convert to Christianity. In this gorgeous, cruel world, both men have found enough rot within themselves to perpetrate horrors: Shylock attempts to strip Antonio of his life, and Antonio succeeds in stripping Shylock of what remained of his soul.

3 and a half Stars

Archived article by Erica Stein
Sun Associate Editor