Transforming one of Shakespeare’s most complex works into a morass of paralyzing drudgery, Michael Radford (Il Postino) drowns The Merchant of Venice in self-importance. Anti-Semitism, closeted homosexuality, sexism, xenophobia, and justice all swirl around, pulverizing the thematic content into stew. Radford’s Venice is ripe in venality, with half-naked prostitutes wandering the ghetto streets and persecuted Jews enduring all manner of hostility by the oppressive Christians. Once he’s established the grit of earthy naturalism, Merchant eases into its narrative: Antonio (Jeremy Irons) borrows money from Jewish loan shark Shylock (Al Pacino) so his beloved young friend Bassanio (Joseph Fiennes) can woo beautiful heiress Portia (Lynn Collins). While smarmy Fiennes and saccharine Collins do their best Shakespeare In Love, Pacino works himself into the method: spittle soaked, toadyish, and fervent in his great monologues—cloaking himself in mumbles the rest of the time. When Pacino starts sniping about the famous pound of flesh that is his bond, it never equals the vivid posturing of Scarface or even Dick Tracy. But it does breathe some life into what’s otherwise a two-hour-plus period film that chokes to death on its own overbearing literalism.
Simply gorgeous. Even the handful of CGI shots in the film-which I didn't even know where there until Michael Radford pointed them out in his commentary track-look spotless. Skin tones are accurate, colors are warm and inviting, and shadow delineation is top-notch, which is important here considering Merchant of Venice is a very dark movie. Jocelyn Pook's score makes itself known on the atmospheric Dolby Digital 5.1 surround track, which preserves every syllable of the film's dialogue with great richness.
To my great surprise, the commentary track by Michael Radford and Lynn Collins if both informative and fun. In addition to the usual behind-the-scenes anecdotes, the pair talks a bit about the historical context and details of the film (apparently whores needed to show their blood-tainted titties so their johns would know they didn't have willies), but the challenge of bringing the language of Shakespeare's play and its difficult themes to the big screen is more eloquently discussed in the 30-minute featurette "The Merchant of Venice: Through the Lens." Al Pacino's interview is most impressive: Having rejected the role of Shylock many times, he took the part in Radford's film because of certain aesthetic and moral allowances the production made that no theatre piece had been able to promise him. Rounding out the disc is a weblink to a teacher's guide and trailers for other titles coming up from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.
Don't miss The Merchant of Venice for Al Pacino's great scenery-chewing performance and bold expression of a great moral conflict.