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Ron Reed

The Merchant Of Venice (2004)

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A new version of THE MERCHANT OF VENICE hits L.A. and N.Y. just before the New Year with Al Pacino, Jeremy Irons, Joseph Fiennes, Lynne Collins. Mark Moring at CT Movies pointed me to this article in The Guardian that gets the ball rolling...

A Very Jewish Villain
Jonathan Freedland

The debate is so old it should have its own place in the Shakespearean canon. Is Shylock, the Jewish moneylender who demands a "pound of flesh" from a debtor, a villain or a victim? Every time The Merchant of Venice is staged, the debate is restaged along with it. Does Shakespeare's play merely depict anti-semitism, or does it reek of it? Is the Bard describing, even condemning, the prevalent anti-Jewish attitudes of his time - or gleefully giving them an outlet?...

It's clear that director Michael Radford does not want to make an anti-semitic film. But he has big two problems. The first is the play. The second is the medium. ...As the great critic Harold Bloom has declared, "One would have to be blind, deaf and dumb not to recognise that Shakespeare's grand, equivocal comedy The Merchant of Venice is nevertheless a profoundly anti-semitic work."

...So the film-maker has a problem with the play he has chosen. But - and this may be the bigger surprise - he has deepened his trouble by making a film. For the very nature of the medium aggravates the traditional dilemmas of staging The Merchant of Venice. We may want to dismiss Portia and friends as ghastly airheads, in contrast with weighty Shylock, but that's tricky when they are played by beautiful A-list film stars, in gorgeous locations accompanied by delightful music. How can we do anything but sympathise with Antonio, when he's played by Jeremy Irons - exposing his chest to Shyock's knife in an almost Christlike pose?

...Shakespeare is simply experienced differently on stage. Even when it's not at the Globe theatre, we understand when we see a Shakespeare play that we are seeing a historical artifact, written several centuries ago. Instantly that provides some context: these were the attitudes of the time. That sense is diminished in the most modern of forums, the cinema. To hear the words "dog Jew" shouted on Dolby Surround speakers; to see a Jew fall to his knees and forced to convert to Christianity on a wide screen, cannot fail to have a different, and greater power. ...



*

There's lots more, and it's well worth reading: he's specific about what he sees on the screen, and perceptive in his contrasts of stage and screen, of Shakespeare's era and our own. Whets my appetite for this one, to be sure!

Ron

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Al Pacino is playing Shylock, if I'm not mistaken. He may no longer be beautiful, but surely he's still an A-list star? I probably don't know what "A-list" means. huh.gif All the same, I, too, am looking forward to seeeing this. If anyone can make the audience understand Shylock in all his humanity, I expect Pacino can do it. Or I hope so.

Until I've actually seen the film, I'm a bit dubious about Freedland's rhetorical question, "How can we do anything but sympathise with Antonio, when he's played by Jeremy Irons - exposing his chest to Shyock's knife in an almost Christlike pose?"

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Until I've actually seen the film, I'm a bit dubious about Freedland's rhetorical question, "How can we do anything but sympathise with Antonio, when he's played by Jeremy Irons - exposing his chest to Shyock's knife in an almost Christlike pose?"

Exactly right. I like Irons, but the first thing I thought of was, "Yeah! The guy who killed his wife, conned Dershewitz, and got away with it."

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I checked with my Eng. major brother about this, he pointed out some interesting things. Note that Shylock is not the title character, Antonio is. He also noted that originally (he's older than I am, so he may have seen the play at the Globe) Shylock was played by the company's comic actor and that "If you prick us, do we not bleed" was a gag line. And he noted the near Talmudic logic that Portia uses to settle the case.

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Ebert & Roeper LOVED this film.... So why isn't this in every critic's top 10 list?

Because they don't feel obliged to like the movies that Ebert & Roeper like?

Perhaps the more pertinent question might be, why isn't it on Ebert or Roeper's lists? I guess they can like it a lot without considering it among the top three percent of the films they see in a given year.

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Caught the film this morning, and liked it.

Then I heard Ron call my name from a few rows back, and we talked for about an hour, and by the end of our chat, I loved it. (The film, that is. Though the chat was cool, too.)

As I told Ron, I approached this film as a complete virgin -- I had never seen or read any versions of this play before, so I was in genuine suspense during, say, the climactic court scene.

I also found myself analyzing certain lines as they were spoken, wondering if I could separate the words from the ways in which they were uttered, and wondering if the words that made Shylock and Antonio somewhat sympathetic in this film might have had a very different effect on me when this play was first performed by the actors for whom Shakespeare wrote the play. (Antonio has a line, in the courtroom scene, about how the Jew's lack of mercy is a non-negotiable fact of nature, and Jeremy Irons delivers the line softly, in a way that seems almost remorseful, almost as though Antonio realizes he has earned Shylock's contempt -- it seemed to me that the line as spoken by him was very much about Shylock alone -- yet I could easily imagine other actors proclaiming the line in ways that would confirm an anti-semitic audience's distrust of Jews.)

The film begins and ends with scenes that are not in the play, and thus have no dialogue (except, I think, for one "religious fanatic's" quotation of those bits in the Old Testament which condemn lending money at interest -- which, incidentally, virtually everybody tends to forget when interpreting Jesus' parable of the talents, but that's a whole other topic), but they serve to place the story and its underlying anti-semitism within their historical context. It reminded me of all the opening titles and closing titles that people kept telling Mel Gibson he ought to put in The Passion.

I was intrigued by the constant references to surfaces vs. inner selves -- not just the racial issue (which includes not only the anti-semitism stuff, but also the scene with the African character who tells Portia not to be distracted by his "hue"), but also the fact that all three women are disguised as men or boys at one point or another, as well as those three boxes of different metals that Portia's prospective suitors must choose between. And by the way all three women are connected to rings of some sort.

And re: the "Talmudic" argument Portia makes, Ron also pointed out that the film includes a few interesting visual elements early on that prefigure the court scene, and that underscore the fact that Portia is, essentially, telling Shylock to be KOSHER when he does what he says he will do.

There's lots to chew on here, for sure.

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[AFC]2 Critics, I know you have a LOT to see before Saturday night's deadline, but it sounds like you should see this if you have a chance.

If enough people vote, it'll be nominated, and then we'll have two more weeks to see it before final voting.

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Caught the film this morning, and liked it.

Then I heard Ron call my name from a few rows back, and we talked for about an hour, and by the end of our chat, I loved it.

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Thanks for the comments (on my comments about our mutual comments), Ron!

One thing I'd like to explore more -- and I say this to all interested readers, not just to Ron -- is this idea that Shylock was originally written for the COMIC actor of Shakespeare's troupe. When I spoke with Ron, he mentioned that the moment when Shylock pulls out his knife and starts sharpening it -- right there in the court! -- often gets laughs from the audience, and it can be tricky to stage the scene in a way that does NOT get that reaction. It occurred to me that Shylock, with his murderous, almost over-the-top greed, COULD be performed as a sort of Mister Burns figure.

And now I've got a Pacino-as-Burns image going through my head. "Excellent! Hoo-ah!"

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I would also add to the calls that anyone wanting a completist view of 2004 films should rush to see Merchant. The plaudits for both Pacino and Irons are all well deserved and the emphasis of Shylock's Jewishness (the kosher scenes, the Synagogue moment) are as well placed as they could be. I'm still thoroughly uncomfortable with the anti-semitic nature of the play (there really is *no* way the knife sharpening is anything but an evil villain cackiling scene, no matter how small Pacino makes himself look) but the film is a fascinating blend of Shakespeare and Hollywood character cinema in which all can be monstrous but none are ever truly unsympathetic.

That said, this is by no means one of the great Shakespeare adaptations. What's on screen looks and sounds great but the adaptation of the material itself is poor and there is a big problem with structure in the film. Mostly its one inherited from the play. The trial scene serves as something of a climax, and the film certainly plays up to that (big, big music. Lots of stopping-at-the-last-second moments) but then it follows the play's coda which is the resolution of one of Shakespeare's favourites: the "people in disguise revealing the truth about themselves" scene. Now in the play this has always been a bit of an uncomfortable coda, but in this film it's a total showstopper for all the wrong reasons.

This film is about Antonio and, primarily, Shylock (as opposed to the play which is about Antonio, Portia and Bassanio and, whichever way you read it, there's really no escaping the fact that Shylock is really just a comic antagonist). Every scene once the trial and, therefore, their story is over is a real narrative stopper. These final scenes, although certainly not badly shot or played, are immensly turgid. And this is a real problem as they're written as energetic and *funny* scenes in the play. Radford and team make some token gestures to keep up pace until the end. I particuarly liked the momentary glimpse Shylock. (The implications of which are debatable and various. Is the door closing on him simply another expression of the ostrosisation of the character by Christian Venice? Or a virtual imprisoment? Or something else) But the adaption itself is really only one of making the uncomfortable elements of the play acceptable to a 2004/5 audience, not taking the time to question the cinematic virtues of the whole bredth of text and adapting accordingly.

On the former, the film succeeds and does deserve much applause. Despite what's in the play, Shylock has long been the primary character in Merchant and I'm yet to see any adaptation on stage or film which doesn't focus on him as such. And what little tinkering Radford does with the text is done in service of *earning* his Shylock-centric version. But that's all Radford is prepared to do: tinker. Like so many Shakespeare adaptations it makes the cardinal mistake of assuming that all Shakespeare is inherently cinematic. It's not, and Merchant in particular is one of the most problematic plays in this regard.

Phil.

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Shantih wrote:

: The trial scene serves as something of a climax, and the film certainly plays up to

: that (big, big music. Lots of stopping-at-the-last-second moments) but then it

: follows the play's coda which is the resolution of one of Shakespeare's favourites:

: the "people in disguise revealing the truth about themselves" scene. Now in the

: play this has always been a bit of an uncomfortable coda, but in this film it's a

: total showstopper for all the wrong reasons.

FWIW, Ron said after the screening that some theatrical productions of this play have actually ended with the court scene and skipped Act V altogether. I can see why people would do this, if they regarded Shylock as the primary character, but man, that WOULD leave a number of things unresolved.

: This film is about Antonio and, primarily, Shylock (as opposed to the play which is

: about Antonio, Portia and Bassanio . . . ). Every scene once the trial and,

: therefore, their story is over is a real narrative stopper. . . . Radford and team

: make some token gestures to keep up pace until the end. I particuarly liked the

: momentary glimpse Shylock. (The implications of which are debatable and various.

: Is the door closing on him simply another expression of the ostrosisation of the

: character by Christian Venice? Or a virtual imprisoment? Or something else)

I think Ron and I were both under the impression that Shylock was being shut out

of the synagogue, or the Jewish community with which he had identified all this time

. At any rate, adding that visual element does keep the parallel between Antonio and Shylock going right to the end, as both men are left quite alone in the film's final moments: Antonio, who begins the play by declaring how "sad" he is now that his young male friend (and lover?) has found himself a wife, is left by himself when all the couples head off to their various bedrooms, and he owes his isolation to his generosity and mercy; whereas Shylock owes his isolation to his vindictiveness and greed.

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At any rate, adding that visual element does keep the parallel between Antonio and Shylock going right to the end, as both men are left quite alone in the film's final moments

Excellent reading. I think I'll assimilate that one!

On Antonio and his relationship with Bassanio, what did you gents make of the film's depiction of it? I realise that I'd not even mentionned it in my little summary; but actually it was another quite important piece of emphasis by Radford. Antonio's homosexual leanings have been the focus of a lot of contemporary critics with many seeing the sympathys in Antonio's affection for Bassanio as groundbreaking (something of an effort perhaps to "reclaim" the play away from Shylock back to its title character)

Radford certainly feeds into this critical viewpoint. Irons' Antonio is a man who wants to help Bassanio and whose love seems unconditional. Radford is keen to make him quiet, considered and (dare I say this) maybe even a little Christ like in his willingness to suffer and die for his love for Bassanio (whatever form you see that love taking)? Even his repellance of Shylock in the film's opening moments fades into something of apology and pity towards his would be executioner by the trial.

Phil.

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My rave is up at CT Movies.

Glad you liked those performances, Phil: they're very strong, aren't they? I don't share your structural qualms, though, and think it's about as great an adaptation of a difficult-to-stage play as could be. I actually think the film helps shift emphasis back onto somebody besides Shylock, much more successfully than any of the stage versions I've seen. But there's no doubt that Pacino's not-just-really-good-but-actually-great performance of Shylock is a tremendous centre of gravity.

I'm eager to give the rest of your comments a closer look when time allows. For now, though... Stuff to do.

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I saw this tonight and loved it. I loved the tension between justice and mercy, I loved all the stuff about identity. I went into this fresh, so I was held in tension, particularly during the trial, of course, but also during Bassanio opening the box. Great stuff.

I did want to comment on one thing earlier in the thread:

(Antonio) owes his isolation to his generosity and mercy; whereas Shylock owes his isolation to his vindictiveness and greed.

I love the observation of them both being alone, but I felt very different about the motive, particularly for Antonio.

I didn't feel his act at the trial was anything like genrosity and mercy. Instead, his words exacted a penalty on Shylock far worse than death. So he didn't have to pay Antonio, big deal. He did have to give his money to the man who stole his daughter, and he was forced to convert. I can't think of anything much worse than this.

And while I'm thinking about it (and I don't want to take this too far), but inasmuch as Antonio and Shylock are representatives of their respective faiths, it seems that they, whether Jew or Christian, find themselves alone because of the kind of people they are. Neither, I would venture to say, acts in a way consistent with his faith, and both receive what is coming to them.

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John wrote:

: : Antonio . . . owes his isolation to his generosity and mercy; whereas Shylock owes

: : his isolation to his vindictiveness and greed.

:

: I love the observation of them both being alone, but I felt very different about the

: motive, particularly for Antonio. . . .

Hmmm, I wasn't thinking AT ALL of the trial, there. I was thinking of the fact that he is the only character without a lover, he is the only one not paired off with someone -- and this is a fate he accepts from the VERY beginning of the film, when he talks about how "sad" he is, now that the man he loves (platonically?) is essentially going to leave him for a perfect woman.

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Hmmm, I wasn't thinking AT ALL of the trial, there. I was thinking of the fact that he is the only character without a lover, he is the only one not paired off with someone

Yeah, as I thought more this morning, I was wondering if that might have been where you were coming from. I can see that.

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I'd like to see this done as a comedy some time, but I think I like it as it is in this film better.

For a play that runs justice and mercy head to head (gee, sorta like Dogville), I find it interesting that the Christian "mercy" at the end of the trial is at least as abhorrent as the justice Shylock was demanding. I also think it's worth noting that Shylock mentions that the attitudes he displays he learned from Christians.

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Not much to add here, except to echo the adulation of the others. I, too, approached this as a 'Merchant' virgin, and found it highly suspenseful in places, and a powerful meditation on mercy vs vengeance to boot (reminiscent of some of our recent discussion of capital punishment, actually). I'm now very eager to read the play...

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...As I told Ron, I approached this film as a complete virgin -- I had never seen or read any versions of this play before, so I was in genuine suspense during, say, the climactic court scene.

This week I re-read David Ball's Backwards & Forwards, a great book about dramatic structure, much of it built around a straightforward dramaturgical approach to "Hamlet." In Chapter Six he emphasizes how playwrights use the essential gap between what the audience knows and what it doesn't yet know. That whatever may be going on in novels and short stories in the last hundred years, the primary question in theatre (and film) is "What happens next?"

Get this, from page 33. "Don't deprive students (or anyone else) of theatre's greatest pleasure: the delicious, often suspenseful thirst to know what comes next. Imagine seeing The Merchant of Venice not knowing in advance if Shylock will win or lose."

Cool.

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It LOOKS great.

Irons is fantastic.

The rest of the cast hits and misses. There is much more color, much more humanness that could be pulled out of Shylock's lines by an actor and director who wanted to go there, but apparently that isn't what Pacino and Radford were about. Collins is a pretty face who throws away the greatest speech in the play (not to mention fouling up three of the words). Fiennes is great with minutiae, but I'm not sure Bassanio was written to be played so small. I echo the complaint about the turgid pace, but that's a problem with the whole film, not just with Act V.

Watched the featurette with great interest. Several small but significantly hubristic comments there, a couple by one of the producer-types, on how superior film is to stage. Once he claims that actors can play their subtexts on film but not on stage, or some such baloney.

Don't get me wrong, it is a very interesting take on Merchant of Venice, but if Radford thinks it's the definitive take he's very much mistaken.

I'd rank the Trevor Nunn Twelfth Night or the Branagh Henry V or the Fishburne Othello ahead of this, as Shakespeare film adaptations go.

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There is much more color, much more humanness that could be pulled out of Shylock's lines by an actor and director who wanted to go there, but apparently that isn't what Pacino and Radford were about.

Well, there's no disputing tastes. But to my perception, this Shylock is as vivid and as human as could be imagined.

Collins is a pretty face who throws away the greatest speech in the play (not to mention fouling up three of the words).

Again, I'm a bit shocked. She has a pretty face, but she's much more than that. There's a tremendous presence there, wit, intelligence. Do you really mean to be quite so dismissive? You have every right, but... I guess I continue to be a bit gobsmacked that you see so little where I see so much.

I echo the complaint about the turgid pace, but that's a problem with the whole film, not just with Act V.

Is it possible you were simply in a nasty mood when you viewed this? I can understand someone accusing this production of being melodramatic - I wouldn't agree, but I would understand. But to criticize it for the opposite seems... Well, just contrarian.

Or were you involved in a production that made different choices, and you've become attached to those choices, and so any others seem wrong?

I'm not meaning to dismiss your viewpoint, I'm just flailing around trying to figure out where it might come from. I feel like a fan of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK hearing someone criticize the opening for being slow and uneventful. Criticize the Lurhmann R+J for being frenetic, or its title actors for mishandling the text, and I couldn't argue - though I wouldn't agree that those pretty much indisuptable facts ruin the film. But... Well, I've made my point, expressed my nonplussedness.

Like I said, no disputing tastes. But it does seem as though we saw different movies.

(I did like Trevor Nunn's TWELFTH NIGHT, though.)

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Well, there's no disputing tastes.  But to my perception, this Shylock is as vivid and as human as could be imagined.

As a director, how many beats do you think should be played in the "Do we not bleed" speech? Pacino played only one.

Collins is a pretty face who throws away the greatest speech in the play (not to mention fouling up three of the words).

Again, I'm a bit shocked. She has a pretty face, but she's much more than that. There's a tremendous presence there, wit, intelligence. Do you really mean to be quite so dismissive?

I don't know whether to blame her or Radford, but I don't see how "'Tis mightiest in the mighty" is an improvement upon the original "'Tis mightiest in the mightiest," or why the ungrammatical "It is enthroned in the heart of kings" should be preferred to the original "It is enthroned in the hearts of kings." Collins strikes a single note on this speech, just sort of buzzing through it while she paces around Pacino. The circular camera tracking supplies the interest that should be coming from her delivery.
Is it possible you were simply in a nasty mood when you viewed this?
Since I have a 2-week-old son I'm certainly sleep-deprived.
I can understand someone accusing this production of being melodramatic - I wouldn't agree, but I would understand.  But to criticize it for the opposite seems...  Well, just contrarian.
But isn't contrariness my claim to fame? The film is just uncomfortably slow in a lot of places where it needn't be. And Irons is the only actor who doesn't throw away any of his lines.
Or were you involved in a production that made different choices, and you've become attached to those choices, and so any others seem wrong?
Nope, never been in a production. Maybe I'm just attached to certain parts of the text and don't like hearing them mangled for no apparent good reason. Did you notice that Brother Bill didn't even get a screenwriting credit?
Like I said, no disputing tastes.  But it does seem as though we saw different movies. 
Whoops Edited by mrmando

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Then I heard Ron call my name from a few rows back, and we talked for about an hour, and by the end of our chat, I loved it.

Very few sentences I've read in my life have filled me with envy. To have a fellow A&F'er call out my name in a theatre and what to chat up the film?! Oh man! That's it! I'm, moving to Seattle or Vancouver!

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Well, there's no disputing tastes.
Edited by Ron

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What aversion? I didn't dislike the film, Ron, I was just surprised at how unmoving those two speeches were, in particular. (The third word-change in the "quality of mercy" speech was a "your" for a "thy," for which I think we do blame the director

Edited by mrmando

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