I was surprised to find that this is the first talkie ever made of The Merchant of Venice, though television — mostly the BBC — has offered it up several times.
The most famous of the TV versions (1973) starred Laurence Olivier (Shylock) and Joan Plowright (Portia), while the most intriguing (1972) starred Frank Finlay (Shylock), Christopher Gable (Bassanio), Charles Gray (Antonio) and Maggie Smith (Portia). (Who wouldn’t want to see Gray — best known as the Criminologist in The Rocky Horror Picture Show — as Antonio?)
The reason for the lack of actual films of the play is not hard to fathom, since the inherent anti-Semitism of the subject matter makes this story a tricky proposition — not in the least because the play is one of the Bard’s comedies. “Educational” offerings on TV are one thing (though I understand the play isn’t taught in schools these days); theatrical films are something else again.
Many of these TV productions came under the heading, more or less, of “radical Shakespeare,” which is to say that alterations were made (one is set in the early 1900s, another is set in decadent 1920s Germany a la Cabaret, etc.). “Radical Shakespeare” sometimes pays rich rewards (Richard Loncraine’s fascist version of Richard III, Peter Greenaway’s very unusual version of The Tempest, Prospero’s Books), and other times verges on the silly (Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet).
Michael Radford’s The Merchant of Venice is also radical, but in an entirely different way. He kept the story in its original period, shot the film in Venice and imbued it with a sense of solid reality and traditionalism — without, thankfully, mummifying it into one of those Merchant-Ivory literary adaptations where it would have ended up as … well, The Merchant of Ivory.
In an effort to address the play’s anti-Semitic nature, Radford added a series of titles that appear throughout the film to explain the way Jews were treated at the time of the story. This measure serves to put the story into historical perspective, but it doesn’t excuse the anti-Semitism — nor does it try to.
That’s just as well, because the only way to approach the play is head-on, accepting the fact that it’s a deeply conflicted work by a writer who — as many have noted — probably never even met a Jew. However, based on the evidence of the play, Shakespeare was incapable of accepting the blind prejudice he was expected to have. There’s no doubt that the anti-Semitic material is there; the question is whether it belongs to Shakespeare or to his characters. That is open to debate — a debate that’s at the center of Radford’s adaptation.
People’s approach to this question largely depends on how one views the heroes of the drama. While Shylock (Al Pacino in an astonishing performance) is given his fair share of caricature traits (for example, he’s far more concerned with the financial side of his daughter running away with a Christian than with losing her), he is also given more than ample reason to dislike the Christians, and has by far the strongest arguments against the ill-treatment he has suffered at their hands.
The nominal Christian “heroes,” on the other hand, are far from admirable — especially in Radford’s film, where the inescapable gay subtext concerning Antonio’s (Jeremy Irons) devotion to Bassanio (Joseph Fiennes) is brought into sharp relief. Though some critics (those who are made nervous by such things) prefer to deny the subtext and pass it off as “something else,” it’s difficult to make sense of Antonio’s character — and his “strange sadness” — if one doesn’t accept that he’s in love with Bassanio. Radford’s approach goes further. He not only leaves no room for interpretation on this point, he makes it clear that Bassanio is, for all intents and purposes, a user who is quite aware of Antonio’s feelings and fully prepared to take advantage of them.
At the same time, Antonio’s attitude toward Shylock is equally repugnant. He spits on him and calls him a dog and a blasphemer for no reason other than his religious/ethnic status — and the fact that Shylock loans money at interest (the one business Venetian law allows him to practice). However, Antonio’s perfectly ready to beg Shylock for a loan, which is not only hypocritical, but implicitly says that none of the supposedly morally superior Christians — who were not allowed to loan money at interest — would help him out.
As is common in Shakespeare’s work, the heroine — Portia (Lynn Collins, 13 Going on 30) — is smarter than any of the men in the story, but that doesn’t make her morally better. Disguised as a man, she argues the case for Antonio not to lose his forfeited pound of flesh, calling for mercy from Shylock. But as soon as the tables are turned, her idea of mercy is to go along with Antonio’s notions to take about three-fourths of Shylock’s estate and force him to convert to Christianity!
It can be argued that Shakespeare took all this at face value and was unaware that it could be viewed as critical of his Christian heroes. Maybe so, though it seems unlikely that anyone as sharp as Mr. Shakespeare was that clueless. Whatever the case, while Radford preserves the mechanics of the plot, he also offers us heroes who are as flawed as the nominal villain, if not more so. In so doing, he has given us a richly rewarding adaptation that offers much more to chew on than one might expect from a play that was long considered simple enough to serve as a standard ninth-grade introduction to Shakespeare. Rated R for some nudity.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke