This latest addition to the series of film remakes of William Shakespeare's plays is certainly one by which to define its genre. Although traditional in costume and time period, Michael Radford's The Merchant Of Venice is extremely modern in its interpretation.
The story follows Bassinio (Joseph Fiennes) and the complications that ensue when his friend, the merchant Antonio, (Jeremy Irons) decides to lend him money in order that he may try to win the hand of the beautiful Portia (Lynn Collins). Of course, this being Shakespeare, the equation is never that simple. Antonio is unable to offer his friend the money upfront, as all his ships are in various parts of the world. Enter the Jewish moneylender, Shylock (Al Pacino), who agrees to lend Antonio the money on the strict condition that if he defaults he will owe him a pound of flesh.
As Shylock is somewhat resentful of the restrictions and racism he has suffered at the hands of the Venetian Christians, of which Antonio and Bassinio are part, he is more than willing to demand his payment when Antonio loses a vessel to bad weather and is unable to pay the loan. The fact that Shylock's daughter steals a large sum of money from him and runs away with one of Bassinio's friends doesn't help, either. As Bassinio struggles to find a solution to this seemingly hopeless situation, he gets some surprising assistance from an even more surprising source.
What can I say? The acting is spot on and the dialogue, commonly the trickiest element in Shakespeare adaptations, is impeccably delivered in a modern tone that really makes the film accessible to audiences of all literary backgrounds - a feat in itself. Pacino's performance is nothing short of superb, one of the most passionate and inspiring of his career. Shylock has historically been played as a sinister, almost laughable, stereotype and yet here he is seen as a truly tragic figure, a sympathetic victim of his own resentment.
Fiennes is also impressive, as the film's heartthrob, though his emotional scenes do tend to verge on the melodramatic - I know he can do better; see his Lord Robert in Elizabeth - which is a turn off. Iron's Antonio is delicious, with its repressed homoeroticism, a real treat to watch. Last, though definitely not least, Collins's performance is lovely, not just because she's drop dead gorgeous, but because the girl has talent. She's only had a handful of supporting roles so far, but it is clear from her Portia that this will change.
Radford has done an impressive job of providing a visual tapestry to do the play justice. There is not one thing that I would have left out. His adaptation is a triumph.
Don't let the fact that this is Shakespeare put you off. As well as a great way of introducing yourself to the most influential Englishman, who ever penned a sonnet, the film is a gem.