Combustible Celluloid
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With: Al Pacino, Jeremy Irons, Lynn Collins, Joseph Fiennes
Written by: Michael Radford, based on the play by William Shakespeare
Directed by: Michael Radford
MPAA Rating: R for some nudity
Running Time: 131
Date: 09/03/2004

The Merchant of Venice (2004)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Shylocked Out

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

To the list of truly great filmic Shakespearian performances (Olivier,Gielgud, Welles, Brando, Brannagh, McKellen), we can now add Al Pacinoas the slick and twisted merchant Shylock in Michael Radford's TheMerchant of Venice.

When Antonio (Jeremy Irons) borrows money from him, Shylock demands a pound of Antonio's flesh as collateral. Inevitably, Antonio is unable to pay Shylock back in time.

The wily villain shows up in public court to collect, and Pacino has his great moment, even when not speaking. He glares at the spectators gathered around him; he's aware of their bitter hatred and he bristles it back at them like a diminutive, angry porcupine.

Two more excellent performances come close to matching him. Irons' Antonio has a doomed look, his sallow face seemingly already aware of his gruesome fate. And Lynn Collins (13 Going on 30, 50 First Dates) makes a crafty Portia, with a wicked twinkle in her eye and an intelligent smile; she slowly warms up to a pleasant boil over the course of the story. Her scene as the lawyer who saves Antonio -- played in drag -- is coyly effective.

Sadly, the rest of director Radford's haphazard casting dulls the film's flow. Joseph Fiennes (Shakespeare in Love) plays Bassanio, the play's hero who sets the plot in motion by asking Antonio for money to impress the young heiress Portia. In the fiery, seasoned presence of Pacino, Fiennes and the rest of the junior cast members only look stunned.

Indeed, the play's finale, involving Bassanio, his buddy Lorenzo (Charlie Cox), Lorenzo's lover Nerissa (Heather Goldenhersh) and a mix-up with their rings, drags the film to a dreary halt.

Radford (Il Postino/The Postman) also makes the ages-old mistake of regarding the play as if it were holy writ, something to be admired and respected rather than merely enjoyed. He introduces a sincere but awkward message about anti-Semitism, and showing Antonio spitting upon Shylock. This despite the fact that the message is already superbly covered in Shylock's monologues, and nowhere better than in the "if you prick us, do we not bleed" speech.

It's a clumsy job of direction, and it results in a mixed bag of a film. But Pacino's breakthrough performance elevates the film to a must-see level. It's a piece of history in the making. If Pacino had not already racked up experience directing himself in his superb 1996 film Looking for Richard, we might not have even had that much.

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