If you prick us, do we not bleed?

I'm no Shakespeare expert. I know enough that when I go to see a show, I really do know what's going on, and what the characters are talking about. I can watch Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet, and understand why it kicks the hell out of the Mel Gibson and Ethan Hawke versions. But I'm not an expert. I have never read The Merchant of Venice, and basically all I knew going into this movie was that Al Pacino is awesome, and he played the Jewish moneylender Shylock. That's it. Kinda fun that way.

Tim and I went to go see what is redundantly called William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice at the Downer. I hadn't been there before, and I guess it's okay, but I prefer the Oriental by far. The screen is a little small, and the sound a little tinny, but it's the only place to see this flick, as well as Bride and Prejudice, so I can deal. It's definitely better than the Westgate Art Cinemas out in Madison, and a helluva lot closer. So, cool.

Anyway, Merchant stars Al Pacino, Jeremy Irons and Joseph Fiennes, and if you, like me, are not acquainted with the story, here goes. Fiennes plays Bassanio, a young Venetian, who enlists Antonio (Irons) to borrow money from Shylock, so that Bassanio may court the rich Portia (ably portrayed by newcomer Lynn Collins). Shylock is bitter that Antonio has scorned him for being Jewish, and insists that if the loan cannot be repaid, he will take as a forfeit a pound of Antonio's flesh. And so forth. Due to a series of unfortunate events, Antonio cannot repay Shylock in time, and all hell breaks loose.

It's tough to lump this film in with other recent Shakespeare adaptations, since it plays in the actual era, and seems to be very faithful to the original text. The actors all perform admirably, and Pacino plays a very different role than I am used to, which is refreshing. What's strange is that Merchant is neither a comedy or tragedy (although several Shakespeare sites place it under Comedy, but I think they're insane), but seems to be more of a morality play, where the message is forgiveness. I think I missed the point, though. I asked Kelsey, who knows more about the Bill than anyone else I know, for her insight into my problem. See, without giving too much away, at the end of the film, Shylock is left with practically nothing, and is forced to become Christian to save his own life, and I felt really, really bad for him. Kelsey says he's supposed to be a pure villain, but if I had to choose a patented Shakespearean Tragic Flaw (tm) is any of the characters, it would be Shylock's desire for revenge. His dogged pursuit of his due justice ends up costing him everything, ala Javert from Les Miserables, but I found him to be a much more sympathetic character. Maybe it's just me.

The film looks great, much of it being filmed in on location in Venice, with the obvious digital historicalization (is that a word?) not distracting from the scenery. Director Michael Radford, whose credits include Il Postino, B. Monkey, and, for some reason, Dancing at the Blue Iguana, is able to trim the play to a tolerable length, and keeps the audience engaged by not lingering too long in monologues. Like I said, I haven't read the play, but a quick Google check confirmed my suspicions: a whole scene was added after the play ends. I hate that! If you're going to adapt Shakespeare, don't screw with it. Baz Luhrmann, as much as a love Moulin Rouge, will forever have a black mark in my book for having Juliet wake up before Romeo dies. That's crap. He's dead way before she shakes off her hangover. So, yeah, I understand artistic license and all that, but write your own play, then. Grr.

Overall, though I feel that The Merchant of Venice is a well-done adapation, and is definitely better than the average Shakespeare flick. I now need to read the play, and if I have to come back and revisit this review, I will. For now, though, it gets a B.


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