I watched this 2004 adaptation by Michael Radford today. It’s the one with Al Pacino as Shylock and Jeremy Irons as the titular merchant, Antonio. It’s not a play I’m familiar with – though of course I know it by reputation – so I was very pleasantly surprised by the sheer breadth of emotions it evoked. Famous for its gruesome premise, I didn’t expect a “comedy”, but this was how it was originally billed. Then again, the original meaning of comedy was not “funny film”, but a distinction from tragedy or history. “Drama” would probably be the billing it would get these days – though there’s a rich vein of warm wit running through it, which lifts it from its sadder moments.
Joseph Fiennes is an endearing Bassanio – the one for whom Antonio takes out the loan. The pair are as close as two friends can be without actually being married to each other. Bassanio wants to borrow the money to travel to propose to Portia (Lynn Collins), but Antonio’s funds are tied up in foreign investments so he borrows the cash from Jewish moneylender Shylock. The problem is that Antonio, for all his virtues, is a raging antisemite and has been pretty vicious to Shylock in the past. Therefore, Shylock cuts him a deal: he’ll lend him the money, interest-free, but if he defaults on the loan he’ll demand a pound of his flesh. Thinking he can’t possibly miss the payment, Antonio agrees.
Bassanio leaves, but faces a problem with Portia: in her father’s will, any suitor must choose correctly from one of three caskets and the wrong choice means he cannot marry her. Meanwhile, Lorenzo (a Christian friend of Antonio) has fallen in love with Shylock’s daughter, and she runs away to be with him. Her subsequent conversion is seen as a double-betrayal by her father, whose hatred for Antonio intensifies. When Antonio’s investments fail and he misses the payment, Shylock takes him to court to sue for a very literal pound of flesh – to be cut from his heart.
As Bassanio rushes back for a courtroom battle for his friend’s life, Portia comes to the rescue in a most unexpected way.
Of course the performances are fantastic, but what I loved most is how “real” the characters were. Shylock is no monster but a man driven desperate by grief and justifiable rage – though his lack of compassion makes him behave monstrously. Antonio is a man made thoughtless by prejudice and foolish by love. Bassanio had squandered his own fortune, putting his friend’s life at risk in the process, and Jessica was pretty mean to have stolen most of her dad’s fortune (including one of his most treasured possessions) before running out on him. The only through-and-through heroic characters are Portia – a kind, extremely clever and resourceful woman who comes to the rescue of the man in distress – and her loyal maid Nerissa.
So it’s to the film’s credit that I managed to shed tears for both Shylock and Antonio, and care very much what happened to the others, in spite of their flaws. It’s beautifully filmed and directed, and the superb acting brings to life the centuries-old dialogue in a way that is easy to understand, and – crucially – be enchanted by.