For those of you who didn’t read the Cliffs Notes in school, here’s a synopsis: Bassanio (Joseph Fiennes) needs to raise some money in his efforts to woo Portia (Lynn Collins) of Belmont. His good friend, Antonio (Jeremy Irons), is short of cash because of investments in merchant ships; however, Antonio knows a Jewish moneylender, Shylock (Al Pacino), who should be able to help. Shylock is willing to lend three thousand ducats for three months with the stipulation that if Antonio defaults on the loan, Shylock gets to cut off a pound of flesh. Antonio agrees since the merchant ships will have returned by then.
Bassanio goes off to win the heart of Portia, but her father has willed that she be given to the man that solves a puzzle. Whoever finds her portrait contained in one of three boxes, will make her is bride. After two suitors guess, Bassanio chooses correctly, but the marriage preparations come to a halt when a letter from Antonio arrives stating that the merchant ships were lost at sea and now he must give Shylock a pound of flesh, which he surely won’t survive. Bassanio rushes back to Venice.
In court, Shylock is offered up to triple the amount of the loan to spare Antonio’s life, but refuses. His rage is fuelled by revenge due to his daughter, Jessica (Zuleikha Robinson), eloping with Lorenzo (Charlie Cox), a Christian. Portia appears disguised as a lawyer and not only does she save Antonio, but she ruins Shylock.
The film looks fantastic. The art departments do a wonderful job capturing the era. The exteriors shot in Venice bring an authenticity that can’t be achieved in a play. The talented ensemble was lead by Pacino’s Shylock, one of his better performances of late. Jeremy Irons played Antonio although I kept finding myself wishing he had more to do.
My only problem with the film deals with some elements of the story.
Antonio knew the deal he was making with Shylock, so he gets no sympathy from me. It was obvious that he didn’t think much of Shylock when he spat upon him. If the terms were disagreeable, then he certainly should have found someone else to borrow money from.
The story treats Shylock very poorly. Even though the Christians hated the Jews, I was surprised that no character could voice any sympathy for Shylock’s state of mind. Yes, he comes off as a bit of a monster, choosing to harm Antonio rather than take triple the loan amount, but his daughter had run away from home to be a Christian and all he had heard about her was that she sold her ring, a precious family heirloom, in exchange for a monkey. Could no other father understand his loss? Plus, we see how inhumanely the Christians treated the Jews. While it might be an accurate reflection of the judicial system at the time, Shylock shouldn’t have been so severely punished when no harm comes to Antonio and Bassanio. They are just as culpable in their poor judgments and should suffer some penalty.
The film should have ended there, but then we get this long, boring scene after the climax of the courtroom back in Belmont where Portia and Nerissa (Heather Goldenhersh) playfully scold their loves, Bassanio and Gratiano (Kris Marshall), for giving away rings that the men promised to keep forever. For some reason, the women felt the need to put the men to the test when they were in Venice. Bassanio wanted to thank the lawyer, a disguised Portia, who saved his friend Antonio from death, but the only thing the lawyer would accept was Portia’s ring. Since he loved his friend Antonio more than the ring, he thought it was a fair payment. Portia should have understood and not made it an issue. How Nerissa, disguised as the lawyer’s clerk, got the ring from Gratiano doesn’t make any sense. He wasn’t indebted to the clerk, so what would his motivation be? He comes off looking like a fool and Nerissa should dump him.
Aside from my minor plot quibbles I enjoyed The Merchant of Venice.