Venice, 1596. Melancholy Antonio loves the youthful Bassanio, so when Bassanio asks for 3000 ducats, Antonio says yes before knowing it's to sue for the hand of Portia. His capital tied up in merchant ships at sea, Antonio must go to Shylock, a Jewish moneylender he reviles. Shylock wraps his grudge in kindness, offering a three-month loan at no interest, but if not repaid, Antonio will owe a pound of flesh. The Jew's daughter elopes with a Christian, whetting Shylock's hatred. While Bassanio's away wooing Portia, Antonio's ships founder, and Shylock demands his pound of flesh. With court assembled and a judgment due, Portia swings into action to save Bassanio's friend. 

Pacino seeks his pound of flesh as a tragic outsider.

Although it’s one of Shakespeare’s most popular and enduring plays, The Merchant of Venice has seen relatively few transfers from stage to cinema, including a silent version in 1914 and a Maori interpretation by Don Selwyn in 2002.

It’s not hard to see why, as more than 400 years since it was written, the play’s trenchant anti-Semitic sentiments are still liable to shock and offend. Michael Radford’s handsome 2004 production, belatedly being released in Australia via Arkles Entertainment, is buoyed by a virtuoso performance by Al Pacino as the tormented Jewish moneylender Shylock.

Still, this film’s appeal is likely to be limited to Shakespeare buffs: others may find it wordy, overly-theatrical and not especially relatable, despite Radford’s claim that its centuries-old theme of hatred between Christians and Jews is mirrored today in the conflict between the West and Islam.

The opening crawl explains the sad lot of the Jews in parts of 16th century Europe, forced to live in ghettos, observe night-time curfews and wear red hats. Banned from being property owners, they became moneylenders. The first scene shows a scuffle on the Rialto Bridge as one man is tossed into the river.

Jeremy Irons is the merchant Antonio, whose friend Bassanio (Joseph Fiennes) needs a stack of money to compete with the wealthy suitors vying for the hand of beautiful heiress Portia (Lynn Collins). Antonio approaches Shylock, whom he reviles, to borrow 3,000 ducats for his friend. Shylock agrees but insists on a harsh bond: If the money isn’t repaid within three months, he will cut off a pound of Antonio's flesh.

In an early version of the game show Pick-a-Box, lucky Bassanio chooses the right one of three caskets of gold, silver and lead to win Portia. Meanwhile Shylock's daughter Jessica (Zuleikha Robinson) elopes with Christian nobleman Lorenzo (Charlie Cox), taking her father's cash. This enrages Shylock, prompting the famous 'If you prick us, do we not bleed?" speech delivered magnificently by Pacino. When Antonio's ships are wrecked and he can’t honour his debt, Shylock is hell bent on wreaking revenge.

Pacino resists the temptation to grandstand or chew the scenery, maintaining a steely calm until his character succumbs to bitterness and anger. Irons evokes sympathy as a melancholy, empty man, and Radford doesn’t shy away from showing the homo-erotic undertones to the Antonio-Bassanio relationship.

Fiennes is fine as the impetuous Bassanio, who slowly appreciates the sacrifices his friend made for him. As Portia, Collins looks the part but her performance lacks shading, and she’s unconvincing in the courtroom scene where she’s disguised as a male lawyer. One can only wonder what Cate Blanchett would have brought to the role, which she was offered but had to turn it down as she was pregnant. Bruno Rubeo's production design, Sammy Shepherd's costumes and Jocelyn Pook's subtle score enhance the richness of the production.


2 hours 10 min
In Cinemas 09 July 2009,