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The Merchant of Venice (2004)

Directed by:

Michael Radford

Rating: 5/10

Running Time: 138 minutes

US Certificate: R UK Certificate: PG

Country: Italy, Luxembourg, United Kingdom, United States

William Shakespeare, though undoubtedly handy with a quill, isn’t exactly renowned for writing the most accessible of material. So, regardless of the man’s perceived greatness, it’s always a brave step when anyone attempts to turn his scribblings into viable, Hollywood-friendly big screen output.

Of course, while “bravery” is one way of looking at it, “outright stupidity” is another. Even arch-luvvy Kenneth Branagh has given up trying, so fed up has he become with being slated for his attempts at inflicting The Bard’s work upon mainstream audiences. Now, with ‘The Merchant of Venice’, it’s ‘Il Postino’ director Michael Radford’s turn to show us cultureless philistines what we’ve all been missing.

It’s Venice, it’s the old days (or late 16th Century to be a little more precise), and Christians and Jews are at loggerheads with one another. The Christians lock the Jews up in ghettos by night, and the Jews get their own back by wearing out-of-season red berets by day. It’s against this backdrop of deep-rooted sectarianism that we meet lily-livered ladies’ man Bassanio (Joseph Fiennes). He’s got his sights set on Portia (Lynn Collins), the local hottie, but doesn’t stand a chance of getting into her knacks unless he can flash some serious cash. Women, eh?

Bassanio goes to his “friend” Antonio to borrow the money, but Antonio’s riches are tied up in shipping – so, together, they visit troll-like Jewish money-lender Shylock (Al Pacino) to ask for a loan. Shylock’s loving it, partly because it’s his job, but also because he’s been waiting to get his own back on Antonio for gobbing on him in the street (and these are grown men we’re talking about, remember). So, to cut an extremely long story short, Shylock writes a clause into the contract that, should the repayment go walkabout, Antonio will have to forfeit a pound of his own flesh (literally) instead. You don’t need to be a literary expert to work out what happens next.

‘The Merchant of Venice’ is a difficult play at the best of times. Despite its tenuous status as a dark comedy, it’s heavy-going, fraught with controversy (it could easily be considered both anti-Semitic and anti-Christian) and, most damning of all, not particularly good. Shylock is easily its best and most watchable character, but his part in the story plays as a sideline to the tedious and unconvincing romance between Portia (who never looks particularly interested) and Bassanio (who might be interested in something, but it certainly isn’t women).

The story should really finish at the point where Shylock’s involvement comes to an end, but instead we’re left with a further 25 minutes of squirming in our seats and glancing sideways towards the exit as the weak romantic hook runs its course with some load of absolute nonsense about rings and cross-dressing.

It’s a great film to look at, with tremendous sets and costumes. But essentially, it’s a weak film which asks Pacino – the only convincing performer – to carry its even weaker cast. It’s watchable, but never enjoyable. In quitting this stuff, Branagh got it right.

It's Got: Gonzo masks, geezer birds, and considerably more sex references and female toplessness than you’d normally expect to find in a PG.

It Needs: For everyone to just try getting along.

Alternatives:

Hamlet, Othello, The Passion of the Christ

Summary

Big, brash, bold, and not very good, Michael Radford’s bitten off more than he can chew with this Shakespeare-for-the-masses flop.

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