Mid to late 16th century. There is tension between the Jews and the Christians. The Jews can lend money and demand interest; the Christians cannot.
Venice, place of barges, canals and far more water than modern viewers will be used to; also home to a gaggle of bare-breasted prostitutes who appear occasionally.
Antonio, the merchant after whom the play and film are named: Jeremy Irons
His protégé, Bassanio: Joseph Fiennes
Bassanio's friend Gratiano: Kris Marshall
Lorenzo, another member of Bassanio's retinue: Charlie Cox
Shylock, a Jewish moneylender: played magnificently by Al Pacino
Portia, Bassanio's love interest: Lynn Collins
Nerissa, Portia's maid: Heather Goldenhersh
Jessica, Shylock's daughter: Zuleika Robinson
Antonio, a Venetia merchant borrows 3,000 ducats from Shylock, a Jewish moneylender, to help his friend Bassanio win the heart of Portia, a high born lady who lives outside Venice. When Antonio's ships sink, Shylock demands a pound of flesh (yes, that is where the phrase comes from). Bassanio and Portia try different means of saving Antonio and the drama is finally resolved in a thrilling and moving conclusion in a Venetian courtroom.
Scenes and soundtrack
The film is full of warm reds and golds and is like a beautiful Renaissance painting come to life. The water scenes are lovely are as the shots of a night-time Venice peopled by nobles in masks with long noses. The haunting music which provides the backdrop to the action is composed and arranged by Jocelyn Pook.
In a word, magnificent. Shylock is beautifully played by Al Pacino, who only slips into Godfather-mode occasionally. His mental disintegration as the story progresses is mirrored by a decline in his standards and dress and equal amounts of pain and fire as he seeks his revenge. Pacino is at his best here.
Joseph Fiennes is equally convincing as the sensitive and lovelorn Bassanio who moves from hopelessness to happiness to horror as the story unfolds. Jeremy Irons is also a credible Antonio.
The only letdown is Portia, who is a strong female character in the Shakespearean play. Although she is well acted, Collins’ performance was not on a par with those of the male leads and the ‘quality of mercy’ speech (one of the many great ones from William Shakespeare) had nowhere near the impact it should have.
Ancient vs. modern
Despite its setting and language, everyone can relate to the stories of love, friendship and loss. A modern audience might be shocked by the rabid anti-Semitism and the casual way in which the Christians dismiss and even spit upon Jews (this happens to Shylock in court!); this would not have seemed unusual to an Elizabethan audience. On the other hand, Shylock's condemnation of slavery in the court, which seems obvious to us, would have been shocking to them. And we can't help feeling sorry for the despised Shylock, for he is reacting to the racism he has suffered.
This is an excellent production of Shakespeare's fine play. The running time of 131 minutes passed in a flash. The acting is compelling and the story (featuring love, loss, hatred and revenge) is totally engrossing. Even if you don't like Shakespeare, you'll be able to relate to this enthralling tale. If, like me, you're a Shakespeare buff, you'll love the way his words are translated onto the big screen. This film is a must-see.
Sharon Hurley Hall is a freelance writer, ghostwriter and editor. Sharon worked in publishing for 18 years, writing articles and editing and designing books and magazines. She has also lectured on journalism. For more information or to contact Sharon, visit http://www.doublehdesign.com/