The Good

The Bad

Antonio needs to borrow money to help Bassanio gain the love of Portia. In order to do this, he must borrow the money from Shylock. As Antonio and Shylock are enemies, Shylock demands a “pound of flesh” should Antonio not pay back the loan on time. Antonio ends up getting in a shipwreck(I believe this is what happened, as they were talking in that Shakespearean tongue, I would hear them speak and then see the action on screen to deduce what was happening) and Shylock demands to be paid back what he feels is rightfully owed to him. The thing is, there is a price to demanding the sort of justice he seeks and herein lies the rub of the story.

Okay, Al Pacino, Jeremy Irons, Joseph Fiennes and the luminous Lynn Collins are all fine actors. They know their craft, they can speak in the Shakespearean tongue but I just don’t know that I “get” the story. It is supposed to have this great meaning and resonance, but the ending just didn’t seem to ring true. I know that people reading this are going to scoff at me(much like I scoff at people who don’t like the filmmakers from the 1970s), because of Shakespeare’s obvious influence on performance pieces in all mediums. I am going to take the hit on this one, but I was there. I watched this movie from beginning to end. I didn’t fast forward, I didn’t take a nap, I didn’t talk on the phone(I even paused it when I took my bathroom breaks) ... I was THERE and I still found that this movie was beyond me. It was over my head. I just don’t get what the big idea really was? I know that the idea of the “pound of flesh” is supposed to have a great meaning, but I just didn’t really care that much. Again, I know I must be scandalizing what some people hold up as sacred, but look, this movie just wasn’t my cup of tea. It seemed like a simple story that was really told with too many grand strokes.

Features

Commentary with Michael Radford & Lynn Collins

This is a surprisingly fun look at this film with the director and the women who played Portia. They seem to have really had a great time not only making this movie, but working together as well. There seems to be a deep respect for their fellow actors and actresses as well for the source material of this work. I really got the feeling as I listened to this commentary that Mr. Radford and Miss Collins were watching this film with very fresh eyes. They didn’t seem like they knew everything that was about to happen, rather they seemed to revel in the scenes that were presented and looked forward to the opportunity to talk about all the performances, not just their own.

Behind the Scenes Making of Featurette

This is a solidly put together piece in which we really get to hear about the inner workings of the main characters in this movie. I loved hearing Jeremy Irons’ take on his character Antonio. I single him out because he really seemed to grasp the many different layers of the character he was inhabiting. I feel the same way about Joseph Fiennes. This isn’t to say that Al Pacino and Lynn Collins didn’t seem this way, I just felt that Fiennes and Irons’ feelings were better articulated and more on the surface of who they are. This certainly shows in the movie.

Web Link to Teacher’s Guide (for Classroom Study)

This is the reason people love DVDs. If I was an English teacher I would be so happy to know that not only could I show this movie to my students, I could then derive a lesson place from one of the bonus features on the DVD. As I am not an English teacher, I don’t have too much use for this “study guide” but I can certainly appreciate why it is included with this DVD.

Video

2.35:1 Anamorphic Widescreen. As far as period pieces go, this movie looks astonishing. It is amazing how big and bold I found this film to be. The look of that time and how it was put across was just breathtaking. This movie is tightly constructed. You are not seeing something that I would classify as free flowing. It has the constructs of Shakespeare that is backed up by Michael Radford’s sure handed direction. This is the kind of movie that gets nominated for Academy Awards. In fact, I am sort of wondering how it was overlooked during Oscar time. I sort of remember this movie being released, but since it’s not really my cup of tea, I don’t think I paid it any attention. Even on my cheap, tiny TV this movie looks amazing. The use of colors and the overcast look of Venice all combine together to make a film that even though I think is flawed in the story department, looks amazing in it’s imagery. There is a definite feel of time and place. You can tell that the people responsible for the set design really knew the world that they were constructing.

Audio

Dolby Digital 5.1 - English. I wanted to watch this movie with the subtitles on simply because with the way the characters were speaking, this may as well have been a foreign film. Sadly, the only subtitles I could watch it in were French. It’s not that the audio is bad or that what the people are saying is hard to comprehend. More to the point, I just have something in my brain that is wired to “turn off” when these people talk in this way. I know that that’s how they talked back then, I know that the dialogue is “brilliant”, I know that actors love Shakespeare and I am not arguing with any of that. I am sure that Shakespeare really hits a lot of people very profoundly. I just have never been in on what that is. The reason for this is the tone of speech and the inflection. I just can’t follow it. I don’t get it. I would watch a scene, think I understood what was happening and then if something happened in the following scene that related to what I thought was discussed in the previous scene then I knew if I was right or wrong. This was the only way that I could try and keep up with what was happening in this movie. Maybe when I am older I will gain a greater appreciation for the classics, I will understand how they relate to all the movies I love, but something tells me that when Barry Levinson wrote Diner he wasn’t drawing on Shakespeare as his inspiration.

Package

The cover shot is Jeremy Irons, Al Pacino, Lynn Collins and Joseph Fiennes all in their period wardrobe looking like they belong there. Staring at this box cover, I think I remember seeing an ad for this movie in the newspaper. Truthfully, seeing Pacino in a beard, wearing the outfit he was wearing is enough for me to pass on this movie. I don’t mean to seem so callous or pigheaded, but THESE PERIOD PIECES DO NOT WORK FOR ME. I know people that can just watch these movies over and over, and they never need to come up for air. How they do it is beyond me and I am envious of their skill. The back of the DVD box features some more pictures from the movie, a good description to help people like myself figure out what The Merchant of Venice is all about, extras and the technical specifications of what is on the disk. Nothing too spectacular here if you want to know the truth, but I think that a movie like this doesn’t need to present itself as anything other then what it is. I certainly don’t think that fans of the actors, Shakespeare or period movies in general will find something in this cover that makes them not want to see this movie.

Final Word

Okay, I think I have said all that I probably can say about The Merchant of Venice. I didn’t love it, I didn’t hate it, I just let the beauty of the film wash over me as I tried to figure out what was going on. Maybe I expected a more complicated story and was surprised that this one was so simple? Maybe I missed the gravity of the situation because of the Shakespearean tongue that was used to deliver it? Whatever the case may be, I am happy to have seen this film so that I have at least a broader understanding of the term “a pound of flesh”. Why would Shylock want this? I have no idea, other then that I think he felt that his daughter was surrounded by Bassanio and his minions(he thought they were a bad influence) and he felt he could most hurt Bassanio by hurting Antonio. Maybe I just need to crack the books a bit and see if I can get something more out of Shakespeare’s written word?

The Merchant of Venice is a solidly crafted tale that features fine performances from a stellar cast. The look of the film is big and full of luster. While I feel that the story is lacking overall, I would certainly recommend this movie to fans of the genre or Mr. Shakespeare.

William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice was released December 3, 2004.