The Bard without the luvvies

The Bard without the luvvies

If Shakespeare were alive today what sort of film, and no doubt he would be involved with the medium, would he be making? Well, according to Mackenzie Crook, who plays the role of Lancelot Gobbo, Michael Radford’s production of The Merchant of Venice is exactly that. It is a bold statement to make.

At any rate, Shakespeare would certainly be pleased as a writer that little of his script has been tampered with. Sure, the play has been cut by a third but at over three hours the original would have been a strain for the big screen. Director Radford has left alone all the great lines, filmed it in Venice itself, and gone so far as to recreate Venetian cuisine of the 16th century for the banquet scene. The crew even insisted, true to historical record, that all the prostitutes and courtesans walk around bare-breasted, something that will no doubt help to get bums on seats. It is one of the few times a film of Shakespeare has been made more as a historical drama than as an exercise in acting, and I for one whole heartedly approve.

Many actors use the Bard as an excuse to show off their hamming abilities and as a result test our will to suspend disbelief. Personally I could never fully immerse myself in a Hamlet or Midsummer Night’s Dream played in Edwardian garb, or Romeo and Juliet in modern LA. It seems like actors showing off to the paying public. Will film directors in the 25th century re-make Arthur Miller plays set in the early 24th century, the AView From The Bridge characters dressed in antimatter body suits with an extra-terrestrial actor in the role of an Italian immigrant? Possibly.

So well done to the director and producers (and costume designers) for adding some realism to the show, and they are helped by a fine cast with Al Pacino in the 

role of Shylock, Jeremy Irons as Antonio and Joseph Fiennes as Bassanio.

Pacino shines in this role and he is one of the few actors so good that one forgets it is Al Pacino on the screen and not this pathetic, vengeful money-lender. He is also, as the world’s foremost character ranter, perfect for the Venetian Jew, shouting “they scorned my nation” and “if you prick us, do we not bleed?” with the same rage he wowed audiences with in And Justice For All or Scarface. Fiennes, meanwhile, playing his third major role as an Elizabethan lover and general nincompoop, looks so right for that century, it is no wonder he was the first and only choice for the role. And while the rest of the cast seems mainly gathered from British sitcoms (Crook, Gregor Fisher, Kris Marshall), it does not lighten the seriousness of the story’s message.

Despite being the most produced Shakespeare play in the world, the tale of Shylock has never been made into a major film before, unsurprising considering the content. One can imagine that, had it been thought of by a modern scriptwriter, the tale of a Jewish moneylender wanting to cut the heart out of a leading citizen who had failed to pay back his debt would go down like a lead balloon in most Hollywood studios.

To cater for modern sensibilities well educated in the horrors of anti-Semitism, the introduction explains some of the injustices committed against the Jewish population at the time, forced to live in a squalid “ghetto” and barred from trade. We all know this, but it is preferable that the filmmakers explain the background than try to make Shylock too much of a sympathetic character, which he is not. He is ultimately pathetic, and one feels for him as his daughter runs off with his life savings and he ends up a finished, broken man, but he is no “victim”. Shylock is embittered by the injustices committed against him and his people to the point where he forgets his very humanity, and Pacino is true to him. Producer Michael Cowan said in an interview that “as a teenager I was not one of those ‘I love Shakespeare’ type of guys”; perhaps many might be put off by such a statement, but it should be noted that with a love story, a moving father-son 

style relationship (albeit one with romantic overtones) and a courtroom finale, this might just prove to be another Oscar for William Shakespeare’s already bountiful mantelpiece.

This article was published at The Catholic Herald

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