“If you tickle us, do we not laugh”
I remember loving this 2004 film of The Merchant of Venice hugely when it came out at the cinema, not least for the dreamy Joseph Fiennes but also for the fact that it seemed to make sense of a play which I’d never seen on stage yet always heard how problematic it apparently was. Having not seen it since then, I was quite happy to pick it up as a fab bargain along with some other goodies in a charity shop and in rewatching it, I was reminded of how pleasingly strong a piece of work it is.
The relationship between Antonio and Bassanio is thoroughly played up, from the off Jeremy Irons’ Antonio gazes wistfully and openly out the window at the arriving Bassanio and their relationship is given significant heft by Joseph Fiennes’ highly flirtatious manner. His request for yet more money is accompanied by a knowing trip to recline on the bed between them, his eyes inviting Antonio to join him and whilst the connection between them is never made explicit – the one kiss doesn’t count – it feels extremely real and makes Antonio’s willingness to sacrifice himself all the more believable. And Fiennes’ attractiveness to all and sundry is played on later with Al Weaver’s Stephano getting breathlessly excited about Bassanio’s arrival at his mistress’s home.
But homoerotica aside, another strength of this film is Al Pacino’s Shylock and the unapologetic way in which the anti-semitism of the time is presented. Things open with Jewish people being spat on and tossed in the river and throughout, we are reminded of just how much Jews were ostracised from society yet tolerated for the services they provided. This doesn’t excuse Shylock’s behaviour and Pacino is remarkably implacably monstrous in his demands, but rather presents a context in which his actions can at least be appreciated if not fully understood and lends Jessica’s defection or escape a much greater poignancy – you almost feel for Shylock here.
Lyn Collins makes a good Portia, paired with Heather Goldenhersh’s Nerissa, and in the raft of familiar faces that pop up in these things, I was most impressed by Mackenzie Crook’s Launcelot, John Sessions’ Salerio and Allan Corduner’s Tubal. I felt genuinely embarrassed for David Harewood with his heavily accented almost comedy turn as the Prince of Morocco, one of Portia’s suitors, though Kris Marshall is not bad as Gratiano, even if the appearance of his face inspires not particularly happy thoughts in my head.
Michael Radford has created a rather lovely film here, evidently benefiting from a healthy budget in being rather lavishly produced, Venice and Belmont look ravishing in their different ways, Jocelyn Pook’s music is hauntingly effective and the combined whole creates a powerfully evocative rendering of Shakespeare’s story. If I ever do see it on the stage, this is how I want it to be!