One of the most intractable problems posed by Shakespeare is what to do with his frankly anti-Semitic The Merchant of Venice. Michael Radford's new film, known as William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice (Sony Pictures Classics)—presumably to distinguish it from Neil Simon's The Merchant of Venice—opens with title cards that spell out the status of Jews in 16th-century Venice: They were ghettoized, reviled, and confined by law to occupations like money-lending. Putting the plight of Venetian Jews in context seems a thoughtful solution. It's only too bad that Radford couldn't find a way to put Shakespeare's views in context, too. As Stephen Greenblatt points out in his brilliantly speculative Will in the World, the playwright had probably never met any Jews: They certainly weren't in evidence in Elizabethan England, where even being openly Catholic was a recipe for getting one's severed head affixed to London Bridge. For Shakespeare, Shylock probably began life as a stock villain in a romantic comedy with potentially tragic undertones, not unlike Much Ado About Nothing (written around the same time). But Shakespeare by this point was incapable of creating a one-dimensional schemer like Marlowe's Barabas in The Jew of Malta; and Shylock ended up with an emotional weight and rough eloquence that warped—perhaps fatally—this strange and imperfect play.
In recent decades, some humanist theater directors have tried to portray Shylock as more sinned against than sinning—which really warps the play. Any way you look at it, the man is a monster. The issue is whether he was born one (and is an accurate representation of his people) or made one. The best Shylock I've seen was David Suchet many years ago at the Royal Shakespeare Company: He played a fundamentally decent man who turned himself into a fiend before our eyes. Radford and his Shylock, Al Pacino, take the same tack, although Pacino, as is his wont, is pretty buggy from the get-go. The point is that this Shylock is so beaten down that he positively revels in the opportunity to enact an Old Testament vengeance on his chief antagonist, Antonio (Jeremy Irons), the devout Christian merchant of the title. Radford drives the enmity home with a prologue in which Antonio literally spits on Shylock in the course of a demonstration (outside the Jewish ghetto) against non-Christians. As Pacino's Shylock stonily wipes the spittle off his face, the last ember of hope seems to die in him.
For once, the scale of Pacino's performance is right. He has an odd (OK, slightly insane) way of distending certain words; he's frequently singsong; and he chews the scenery—I mean, when does he not? But he also takes Shylock deep inside himself. Under a heavy beard—black shocked with white—he's gnomish and gnarled, and he burns hotter as the film goes on; his eyes seem on the verge of shooting lasers. More important, Pacino mines all the twisted poetry in the role, so that when Antonio's ships are lost at sea and his debt forfeited, Shylock's demand for a pound of the merchant's flesh becomes an unholy incantation: "I will have my bond … I will have my bond. … Therefore, I will have my bond."
The idea of naming the play for Antonio is peculiar: He is one of the rare Shakespearean protagonists (if he even is the protagonist) with little of interest to say. I can't imagine a better case for the man than Jeremy Irons' anguished performance, all liquid eyes and trembling lips. Antonio has lost not only his fortune but also the young man with whom he's wildly in love, Bassanio (Joseph Fiennes). Did they have sexual relations? Unclear (and un-Christian?). But the young man's determination to compete for the hand of the heiress Portia (Lynn Collins) is a near-mortal blow to the merchant's spirit: He looks so stricken throughout that it's a wonder Fiennes' back-slapping Bassanio doesn't pick up on the bad vibes. Irons makes the loan that Antonio takes out from Shylock to fund his darling Bassanio's romantic expedition seem like an act of heroic self-sacrifice—perhaps even suicide.
This subsequent courtroom scene is the heart of the movie, and director Radford proves adroit at juggling our sympathies. In her disguise as a male law clerk, the potential savior of Antonio, Lynn Collins finds all the transcendent spirituality in Portia's celebrated ode to Christian mercy, and Irons' Antonio submits himself movingly. Finally, there is the riveting spectacle of Pacino's Shylock walking into—no, hurling himself into—a trap: a comeuppance for the vengeful Jew that would have delighted Elizabethan audiences, who loved watching bears torn limb from limb. Shylock is handed his head, as people with an enraged sense of entitlement often are: the lesson, perhaps, with the most contemporary relevance.
But Radford doesn't solve the problems of The Merchant of Venice, which nowadays is too disturbing to be played for comedy and too unresolved to qualify as tragedy or even that ever-shifting hybrid, tragicomedy. Portia's own quality of mercy is strained. Despite Collins' vivacious performance (she was a last-minute replacement for a pregnant Cate Blanchett, whom she resembles), Portia is, all in all, a spoiled and self-centered little princess. And the other characters don't have the stature to make the various lovers' tests of loyalty seem anything but capricious and inconsequential.
Radford throws The Merchant of Venice even more off-balance by making the first half of the movie hushed and dark, with interiors that recall Velázquez and Rembrandt. This Venice seems swathed in a bluish, toxic fog. It's evocative, I suppose, but with the comic energy ratcheted way down, it's also deeply boring—at least until Antonio suffers an economic catastrophe and looks to be coming in for a small weight loss (about a pound). That's when this Merchant of Venice comes roaring to life—when it stops, in effect, apologizing for its terrible anti-Semitic worldview and just gives itself over to some of the most furious courtroom drama ever written. You can contextualize the play, frame it humanistically, and celebrate Shakespeare for not being Marlowe. But in the end you're still stuck with the lousy lot of the Jew in the Western canon. Perhaps Neil Simon's The Merchant of Venice could rectify the balance.