The Merchant of Venice, 2004

dir. Michael Radford


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Michael Radford's The Merchant of Venice is now widely agreed upon as the very best outing The Bard has ever had on the big screen. It’s funny, light-hearted, clever, witty, fast moving, beautifully filmed in beautiful places.

 

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Joseph Fiennes (Star of the television series FlashForward, Enemy at the Gates, Shakespeare in Love) is the kind of rare smooth-talking fella that you can actually relate to, albeit that his character is a cheeky rascal and a little bit greedy he’s still a hec of a lot more amiable than most handsome, romantic protagonists big-budget Hollywood audiences care to fawn over. Also, a rare treat, we get to enjoy Kris Marshall (‘Nick’ from the classic Brit-com My Family, Love Actually, The Four Feathers) being a lovable rogue as this was back in the 90s before he sold his soul to BT to play a morbidly depressing middle-aged materialist for the devil. This film is proof that he was flipping funny, once. Lynn Collins (X-men Origins: Wolverine, The Number 23) is gorgeous as the entrancing Portia, for whom much fuss is made over. ‘Zuleikha Robinson’ (wow, that’s a mouthful), known for being the bad-girl in the television series Lost, as well as starring in Rome, she's wonderfully endearing as the jealous father’s daughter Jessica. Then there’s a whole Saturday-night-line-up of famous English comedians who you’ll recognise as the film goes on. Captivating as Pacino makes the infamous Shylock - seriously, just mwah! - my personal favourite in this film has to be Jeremy Irons (one of England’s prize Hollywood villains e.g. Die Hard: With a Vengeance, The Lion King, The Time Machine, Man in the Iron Mask etc. etc.) playing the role of Antonio. This is an extremely difficult role to perfect. It demands constant sincerity but only the finest actors can pull this off without looking like ‘a total pushover’ as they say (-as Nurse would say). Not only is it difficult for the actor not to look a bit odd, which Irons doesn’t at all but rather captures the honest, good nature of his character, but also the actor must also ‘evoke’ – between being a respectable Venetian citizen, shrewd merchant and proper Christian – the secret knowledge that his character is probably homosexual. This isn’t something ever outright declared in the story; it’ very subtle, very, very subtle, in fact, my point is, it’s not even apparent on any verifiable level; it just is. Probably. Maybe. Judging by the man's actions... well, scholars think so anyway and I am inclined to agree with them. That is why the part is so difficult to play and that is what Irons captures; there's nothing camp about him. His eyes tell us everything we need to know about why he’s such a good friend.

 

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I wanted to give this film five stars but I do not want to lose your faith in me as a critic and I know in my heart that although this film is completely entertaining and fun to watch, I doubt it will spring to many people’s minds when they’re asked what their favourite film of all time is. Maybe I’m wrong; maybe for the fairer sex, who don’t need anything to explode or for anyone to die a violent death, this really is the perfect film; it’s light-hearted, it’s charming but it’s also got genuine romance in the web of it and that’s actually something pretty darn rare in cinema.

 

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The best scene is by rights the courtroom drama, the climax of the story, but I think Shylock’s rant deserves goal of the day. It’s quite serious and not really very funny at all but it’s also a brilliant moment of movie magic from one of the great masters of the age. In his element. Ah, Pacino. You gotta rate that guy. By the way – he is a notorious Shakespeare nut. If you read his biography, there's a great story about a flat he lived in that was littered with countless versions of every play. They were scattered across everything in sight; sofas, tables, the floor, tattered and dog eared, coffee stains on the pages and corners creased beyond cound. In the corner, a late-night reader hunches over such a volume, smoking furiously and reading by the lamplight, just about to get a call from Oliver Stone... If you are interested in Pacino’s Shakespeare, I strongly recommend Looking for Richard. As MoV? Four and a half stars and not a beam of light less.

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