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, isnt exactly renowned for writing the most accessible of material. So, regardless of the mans perceived greatness, its 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 Bards work upon mainstream audiences. Now, with The Merchant of Venice, its Il Postino director Michael Radfords turn to show us cultureless philistines what weve all been missing.
Its Venice, its 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. Its against this backdrop of deep-rooted sectarianism that we meet lily-livered ladies man Bassanio (Joseph Fiennes). Hes got his sights set on Portia (Lynn Collins), the local hottie, but doesnt 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 Antonios riches are tied up in shipping so, together, they visit troll-like Jewish money-lender Shylock (Al Pacino) to ask for a loan. Shylocks loving it, partly because its his job, but also because hes been waiting to get his own back on Antonio for gobbing on him in the street (and these are grown men were 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 dont 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, its 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 isnt women).
The story should really finish at the point where Shylocks involvement comes to an end, but instead were 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.
Its a great film to look at, with tremendous sets and costumes. But essentially, its a weak film which asks Pacino the only convincing performer to carry its even weaker cast. Its 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 youd normally expect to find in a PG.
It Needs: For everyone to just try getting along.
Alternatives:Hamlet, Othello, The Passion of the Christ
Big, brash, bold, and not very good, Michael Radfords bitten off more than he can chew with this Shakespeare-for-the-masses flop.