A review of “The Merchant of Venice” by Jeanne Aufmuth

 

Stars: ***

Rating: R for nudity and adult situations

Run Time: 2 hours, 18 minutes

 

 

William Shakespeare always makes for good theater, no matter the style of presentation. But great theater is a different matter.  Merchant belongs in the former category, classic Bard borne of a dramatic work that makes for solid if less than compelling melodrama.

The story is familiar to most; the enigmatic Christian nobleman Bassanio (Joseph Fiennes) desperately in love with Portia (Lynn Collins) but unable to woo her until he is financially able. 

Bassanio calls upon the support of his friend Antonio (Jeremy Irons) whose good name is sound but whose resources are tied up elsewhere.  He in turn requests a loan from Jewish loan shark Shylock (Al Pacino), whose catalogue of social and political resentments form a histrionic climax when Antonio is unable to repay the debt on time.

Michael Radford has crafted a lovely looking film awash in natural light at glorious locations depicting sixteenth-century Venice, the most powerful and liberal city state in Europe. A smattering of tension, a dose of raw anti-Semitism and some ribald trickery keep the narrative in check.

Merchant is a smart, respectful work and it’s well-turned by seasoned veterans. Unfortunately Radford chooses to fly under the radar, bypassing sensational theatrics (with the exception of Pacino who nearly gnaws at the scenery) in favor of staying true to the source material and rendering the story artful but dry.

Will Shakespeare’s elegant prose is at once airy and profound (“Thy paleness moves me more than eloquence”), its sardonic humor intact even when the energy flags.  With A-listers aplenty and abundant potential, this Merchant offers a subtle sense of unfulfilled promise.