Director Michael Radford begins his adaptation of Shakespeare's eternally thorny The Merchant of Venice with some title cards that explain the story's anti-Semitic milieu. In short order, we learn how the Jews of 16th-century Venice were denied the right to property and forced to live in a ghetto, with temporary egress only available if they wore red hats that identified them as members of a loathed race of usurers.
It's a useful recap, imparting a healthy dose of balance to the Bard's ideological minefield of a text. For no matter how much sympathy today's audiences feel for the central character of Shylock, he remains a villain, and his comeuppance at the hands of his Christian adversaries is one of the queasiest resolutions in theater.
Radford mitigates the virulence of the tale by demonstrating that all of its dramatis personae are locked in a cycle of commercialism. It isn't just Jews like Shylock (Al Pacino) who know the value of a ducat: It's the breast-baring prostitutes, who hawk their wares on the Venetian streets, and it's nearly all of the major (non-Hebrew) characters, who evaluate their emotional investments in baldly pecuniary terms.
They're a deluded bunch, too. When it's time for the chronically insolvent Bassanio (Joseph Fiennes) to contrast his economic standing to that of the wealthy Shylock, Radford has the younger man lying back in a chair, his leather-booted feet on a table, waving away a tray of food. Message: The power of the purse is no one's to monopolize.
That's a good precept to keep in mind as you watch the intractable Shylock pursue a once-in-a-lifetime revenge. The opportunity for same arrives when shipping magnate Antonio (Jeremy Irons) comes to Shylock seeking a loan on behalf of a friend, the love-struck Bassanio. Shylock's acceptance of the deal carries a frightful caveat: Should Antonio default on the debt, he'll forfeit a pound of his own flesh as recompense. The moneylender obviously relishes having such momentary power over Venetians who customarily spit on him for engaging in the same services they now solicit. Some actors play Shylock as a consistently raging fellow who can't wait to give back as good as he's gotten. Pacino initially charts a subtler course, tossing verbal challenges at Irons and Fiennes in a gentle, deliberate singsong. This Shylock is so used to persecution that the best defense he can muster is a volley of mild nagging. The composure melts, though and justifiably so when Shylock's daughter (Zuleikha Robinson) is spirited away by another amorous Christian, Lorenzo (Charlie Cox). After three of Antonio's ships are lost at sea, Shylock sees the chance to avenge the humiliation and collect on his gory bargain. Pacino interprets this pursuit of justice with a steely indignation that feels sufficiently lived-in to avoid the pitfalls of caricature. It's one of the few instances in which seeing the actor re-enter his And Justice For All mode of outraged soliloquy is not only endurable but welcomed.
Radford is less successful with the play's remaining plot threads: Despite fine work by actress Lynn Collins as Bassanio's beloved, Portia, the story of her highly unconventional courtship is played a tad too comically for its own good. And the Antonio/Bassanio relationship is given some homoerotic overtones that fly in from left field and then out again, just swiftly enough to make us wonder what Radford thought he was doing.
Yet the filmmaker succeeds mightily in imbuing potentially dangerous material with enlightened ambiguity. Without changing the events of the piece, he disturbs the play's final implication that all's well that ends well for anyone who happens to have accepted Christ. Instead, he fashions a probing, Pacino-powered argument that, then as now, bigotry is just outta oadah.