Being a more serious play, this film has some serious actors. Check out the trailer and then we’ll dive into the review.
Casting for this one is superb. Al Pacino is a truly impressive as Shylock and I have a massive soft spot for Jeremy Irons, so I was really pleased that he was playing Antonio. Joseph Fiennes is entirely capable as Bassanio, and while he does have a tendency to deliver his lines at a weird volume (he whispers for probably half the film), he’s not hard on the eyes. Although his wig does look weird in the back for a couple scenes. The actress playing Portia is very pretty and she carries the role very well. And for once, we have believable female crossdressing! But more on that later.
The film very firmly sets itself in Italy in 1546. The film starts with footage establishing the antisemitism in Venice with some expository text over it to explain the time period and the situation between Jews and the other residents in Venice. We also get the footage of Antonio spitting on Shylock, that Shylock mentions in his big speech later, and Pacino and Irons are both brilliant and make the scene truly discomfiting. In fact most of the scenes that involve these two men leave you slightly uncomfortable. Both sides of the conflict are flawed and the film definitely emphasizes this.
The other side of the coin to Shylock and Antonio’s conflict is Portia and her suitors. The film makes every effort to bring out the humour in these scenes and giggling at the pomposity of these various men, helps to lighten the mood. Also, her romantic scenes with Bassanio are actually pretty sweet. And her dresses are amazing. I must also mention briefly the actors playing Gratiano and Nerissa who are also delightful. It took me a bit to place the actor who plays Gratiano and then realized that he is “Colin, God of Sex” (and if you don’t get that reference, I’m very sad for you).
The film definitely goes for a more gritty and realistic feel. I found it to be a period film first and a Shakespeare film second. Not that the film is unfaithful to the play, but rather that the focus seems to be on portraying the reality of the time and place (goat slaughtering and prostitutes hanging their boobs out, anyone?) rather than exploring the richness of the language and characters as much. The film will definitely appeal to fans of Elizabeth.
That said, the high point of the film is the court scene. All of the actors bring their best and Pacino makes Shylock, who is at his most vengeful, a sympathetic character. Jeremy Irons does likewise, and as a viewer you are disappointed in both of them for the decisions that they make. The actress playing Portia also really knocks it out of the park. First off, she really does look like a man in her garb (a very pretty one, but a man nonetheless), and in this scene that is filled with rampant testosterone from the various onlookers and the painful conflict between Shylock and Antonio, she is a strong presence that believably makes the judgment that is the crux of the play.
The ending for the film feels a bit odd. Partially because of how Shakespeare has written it, as the comical conflict between the two sets of newlyweds makes for an odd contrast after the emotional heights of the court scene. But the film problematizes it further by giving us shots of Antonio and Shylock that make us pity them and wonder what exactly will become of them. What is even more ambiguous is the final shot of the film which shows us Jessica and it is unclear if she is regretting her decision to elope or simply misses her father after hearing about him. Also, the shot of men shooting arrows into the water (to catch fish?) is probably symbolic but I can’t figure it out. Ultimately, an unsettling film, but one that does justice to the complicated source material.
Next week it’s on to the lighter side of the comedies with As You Like It.