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The Merchant Of Venice
cast: Al Pacino, Jeremy Irons, Joseph Fiennes, Lynn Collins, and Mackenzie Crook

director: Michael Radford

127 minutes (PG) 2004
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
MGM DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 8/10
reviewed by Emma French
Writer-director Michael Radford takes a largely conservative approach to Shakespeare adaptation in his 2004 version of The Merchant Of Venice, although he recognises that he is catering to a 21st century rather than a 16th century audience in his opening description of anti-Semitism in Venice, and in his decision to play Shylock's story very much as tragedy rather than comedy. The strengths of his film ironically point up some of the weaknesses of Shakespeare's play - the dramatic device of the caskets which Portia's suitors must puzzle over seems weak and forced, and apart from Portia's cross-dressing turn as a lawyer at the close of the play and film, her story does not mesh very effectively with that of Shylock.

Given these plot shortcomings, Radford shrewdly makes his film very much Shylock's story, and the casting of Al Pacino as Shylock is inspired. Pacino's performance is uncharacteristically muted and nuanced, with none of the unwelcome histrionics he displays in films such as Scent Of A Woman and Carlito's Way. His Shylock is very much a man beaten down by fate and prejudice, who truly does seek some measure of justice from his Christian oppressors, rather than the vindictive malcontent that Shylock has been at so many points in his long stage history.

Though Al Pacino's performance in the film justly garnered much critical acclaim, Jeremy Irons is also excellent as Antonio, and it is good to see him back on form after a run of mediocre film roles. Lynn Collins, playing Portia in her first major film role, adds a welcome level of depth and intelligence to the role, particularly in contrast to the rather one-dimensional character of Jessica (Zuleikha Robinson), Shylock's errant daughter. Joseph Fiennes, so memorable as Will Shakespeare in Shakespeare In Love, is, unfortunately, a disappointingly dull and simpering Bassanio, and consequently an implausible love match for the feisty and privileged Portia. The cameo appearances of the British actors Kris Marshall, Mackenzie Crook and John Session are also slightly jarring.

Though many of the performances are excellent, the film's greatest achievement is the visual evocation of Venice. It is stunningly shot, with each scene appearing to be composed of a series of tableaux from Renaissance art. There are numerous moments of rare cinematic beauty, from the opening scenes of gondolas gliding through the city to the final shots of two archers shooting arrows into the still water. Rarely has Shakespeare on screen looked so good, and it is good to see the resources of cinema being exploited so fully, producing achievements and effects that are impossible on the stage.

The extras on the disc are limited, comprising just a scene selection, subtitles on/off option and the trailer. It is a pity that the fantastic costumes, cinematography and sets are not recognised in the DVD extras with a 'making-of' featurette. The disc appears to follow the example of Kenneth Branagh's Shakespeare adaptations on DVD, which are also surprisingly light on special features. Given the widespread use made of filmed Shakespeare adaptations in the educational market, it is strange that there is no guide for teacher and students included on the DVD. Fortunately, the film is of sufficient quality to stand alone as a product, and merits several viewings for its fresh approach, its distinctive 'look' and Pacino's star turn.

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