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The Merchant of Venice (2004)

Al Pacino is hardly a stranger to scenery chewing, so it's no surprise that he was attracted to the role of Shylock. The relentless Jewish moneylender is one of William Shakespeare's most indelible characters, and he gets some of The Merchant of Venice's most memorable speeches. Indeed, his impassioned "Hath not a Jew eyes?" monologue is one of the most famous in all of theater, not only for its dramatic weight, but also for the questions it raises about the institutionalized anti-Semitism of 16th century Europe (questions that Shakespeare proved better at asking than he did at answering — but it was a start). Director Michael Radford's 2004 Merchant adaptation is sleek and good-looking; his screenplay trims the play's fat without losing any of its meaning, and his Venice is all rich colors and sensuality. It only takes a moment to get used to The Bard's lilting language before we're caught up in the tale of Antonio (Jeremy Irons), the titular Venetian merchant who indebts himself to Shylock so that his dear friend Bassanio (Joseph Fiennes) can get the money he needs to court the beautiful (and wealthy) Portia (Lynn Collins). This being Shakespeare, the plot features a healthy share of disguises and clever twists, but Merchant's staying power lies in its themes of compassion and humanity. Just down the ladder from Shylock's famous monologue is Portia's speech about mercy, which Collins delivers with just the right combination of wisdom and chastisement. "The quality of mercy is not strained," she explains to Shylock, but the old usurer, consumed by bitterness and resentment, will have none of it — a mistake that proves to be his undoing. Pacino gives a strong performance as Shylock; some of his line deliveries are a little more midtown New York than Renaissance Italian, but his passion for the part is unmistakable. Fiennes and Collins both seem to have been born to do Shakespeare — the iambic pentameter just rolls off their tongues — and Irons is convincingly world-weary as an aging man who risks everything for the sake of a bright young thing's happiness. Much credit is due to Radford for creating such a faithful, engrossing adaptation… but when working with source material like this, it's a lot harder to go wrong. Columbia TriStar presents The Merchant of Venice in a lovely anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) that showcases Benoit Delhomme's lush cinematography, accompanied by strong Dolby Digital 5.1 audio (French subtitles and English closed captions are also available). Extras include a commentary track by Radford and Collins, a "making-of" featurette (30 min.), trailers, and a link to an online teacher's guide. Keep-case.
—Betsy Bozdech



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