William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice

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William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice
Review (9/10)
(By Erin Cullin)

Although it was twenty years ago, I can still remember, as if it were yesterday, hearing those dreaded words in my Grade 9 English class, "Today, we will begin to study Shakespeare." The teacher may as well have administered a sleeping pill to the entire lot of us.

And so, with this memory intact, it was with some trepidation that I approached the screen version of The Merchant of Venice. It was, after all, the same work that I had studied during my introduction to Shakespeare in Grade 9. The same play that I had spent countless hours trying to interpret and to understand so that I could compose essays, complete assignments and write exams. (Thankfully, by then, I had discovered Coles Notes - similar to Cliffs Notes for any Americans out there - which made the process much less painful, but that is another story...) How on earth was I going to be able to stay awake long enough to screen this film? How was I going to be able to understand it since my mother had thrown out my Coles Notes?

As you are reading this review, you must have gathered that I at least survived the experience. And I must say that it was a rather pleasant surprise.

The Merchant of Venice is director Michael Radford's screen adaptation of Shakespeare's timeless tale about greed, revenge, love and tolerance. It features big screen heavyweights Al Pacino (as Shylock) and Jeremy Irons (as Antonio), as well as Joseph Fiennes (as Bassanio) and Lynn Collins (as Portia).

For those of you who cannot remember The Merchant of Venice from your high school English class, I will give you the Coles Notes version of the plot. Bassanio is seeking the hand of the beautiful and wealthy Portia, but has no money to enter a contest that her late father has devised for her potential suitors. He approaches his friend Antonio, a wealthy merchant, for a loan. Antonio has his funds committed to a shipping venture, but agrees to borrow money from a wealthy Jewish lender, Shylock, in order to help Bassanio. Shylock hates Antonio because Antonio has treated him badly in the past, but agrees to lend him the money. In exchange, however, he requests Antonio's undertaking that he will give Shylock a pound of his own flesh if he cannot repay the debt. When Antonio's shipping venture encounters some difficulties and he is delayed in repaying the debt, Shylock seeks to collect his pound of flesh, with disastrous results. There are other nuances and side stories, but that is the basic plot.

There were several things that I enjoyed about this film. First and foremost, it was a beautiful film. The costumes, the cinematography and the scenery were outstanding. The film was shot almost entirely in Venice, which not only made it authentic, but visually stunning as well. I am sure that it was not easy to film in Venice (the narrow streets, the canals and the water were no doubt significant obstacles), so I extend kudos to Radford and his crew for a job well done on this front. If you have ever wondered what Venice looks like or whether you would like to travel there, this is the place to find out.

This film also deserves accolades for making its subject-matter so accessible. Although the original Shakespearean dialogue is used it was, for the most part, easy to understand (even without the benefit of Coles Notes). Perhaps it was the fact that the dialogue was visually placed into context, but I found that I was able to follow the plot with little difficulty, that I was able to understand the dialogue and that I gained insight into the motivations of the various characters.

The casting of this movie was excellent. Al Pacino delivers a powerful performance as Shylock; I would have to say that it is his best on-screen performance since Scent of a Woman. Jeremy Irons, Joseph Fiennes and Lynn Collins delivered strong performances as well.

The only caveat that I feel that I should make is that this is probably not a movie for everyone. This is a period piece and very much a work of literature as much as it is a movie. So, if you prefer the shoot-em-dead, car chase kind of movies, this is probably not the flick for you.

On the other hand, if you would enjoy an intelligent adaptation of one of literature's great masterpieces or if you are studying The Merchant of Venice and you want to develop a greater insight into the subject-matter, then this is the movie for you. This is one of the best on-screen adaptations that I have seen of a Shakespearean play, and I would highly recommend it.

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