In adapting the Shakespeare play most often filed under Problematic, director Michael Radford may resist the usual lure to contemporize the Bard, but he doesn’t want his rendition of The Merchant of Venice to be seen as a product of its particular place and time (1596, to be exact). He adds historical disclaimers and snips discreetly at the more vitriolic lines, the film’s opening titles outline the gross legal restrictions on Jewish life and livelihood in the late 16th century, and Radford invents a new first scene, where the merchant Antonio (Jeremy Irons) spits upon the Jewish moneylender Shylock (Al Pacino) during what appears to be a pogrom. But Shakespeare, hardly immune to the popular prejudices of his day (and perhaps, as a popular artist, beholden to them), bounds Shylock’s villainy inextricably to his religion, and no faithful adaptation of the play can erase the anti-Semitism coded in its DNA. The movie’s Shylock is clearly a brutalized victim of bigotry, yet the climactic trial scene still suggests a personification of the blood libel, as Shylock salivates for his pound of flesh and Antonio’s Saint Sebastian bears his gaunt chest in sacrifice for his friend Bassanio (Joseph Fiennes). Radford has invoked the invasion of Iraq and the war on terror in interviews about his Merchant, but the implied clash of civilizations here is woefully asymmetrical: The old Jew is drunk on the red red wine of vengeance while the pretty Christians argue for mercy and justice and then go skipping off to their country estate for love, laughter, and song.
Even notwithstanding this version’s inert blocking and awkward camera placements, The Merchant of Venice is one of Shakespeare’s more crooked and hollow contraptions in any guise: Shylock’s acrid rages and ultimate humiliation cohabit uneasily alongside the courtship contrivances and smug prank pulling up at Belmont. Portia plays Let’s Make a Deal with her trio of suitors and dons drag to pull all the strings in court, but Lynn Collins has trouble conveying anything deeper than blithe, benign calculation, especially while fondling a windowpane to express her ardor for oily Bassanio. (Nostrils permanently flared, pucker frozen in a lopsided smirk, Fiennes resembles a draft of Derek Zoolander’s “Magnum.”) Irons’s Antonio, his frustrated desire for Bassanio exalted by his near-sacrifice under Shylock’s blade, is another fine variation in the actor’s gallery of world-weary, softly spoken aesthetes, and Pacino simply wipes the cobblestones with the rest of the cast: His beautifully calibrated performance is lucid, commanding, and genuinely tragic. Al, can we have your King Lear?