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Review: The Merchant of Venice

Writer-director Michael Radford drowns The Merchant of Venice in self-importance.

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The Merchant of Venice
Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

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.

Cast: Al Pacino, Jeremy Irons, Joseph Fiennes, Lynn Collins, Zuleikha Robinson, Kris Marshall, Charlie Cox, Mackenzie Crook, Heather Goldenhersh, John Sessions, Gregor Fisher, Ron Cook, Allan Corduner Director: Michael Radford Screenwriter: Michael Radford Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics Running Time: 131 min Rating: R Year: 2004 Buy: Video, Soundtrack, Book

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