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The Merchant Of Venice

by: Caroline Westbrook - Last updated: 2004-12-08

Al Pacino

Al Pacino

The Merchant Of Venice (PG)

Hollywood legend Al Pacino has made a name for himself playing cops, gangsters and members of the Mafia – but in his latest film he gets the chance to play one of the most famous Jewish characters in English literature. The Merchant Of Venice, a new adaptation of one of Shakespeare’s most famous plays, sees Pacino as the money-lender Shylock – and he slips into the role with ease, bringing a sympathetic edge to a controversial character.


For those who slept through English lessons at school, the play is set in 16th Century Venice, where Jews are forced to live in a ghetto and generally treated badly by the rest of the townsfolk – prayerbooks are burned, while Jews who leave the ghetto are made to wear a red hat and are frequently taunted and spat on by the locals.


However, this doesn’t stop Antonio (Jeremy Irons) from borrowing money from Shylock in order to help out his friend Bassanio (Joseph Fiennes) who has fallen in love with local lass Portia (Lynn Collins). Shylock lends him the cash – telling him he must forfeit a pound of his flesh if he fails to pay back the loan.


But Shylock’s in for a shock when his daughter Jessica runs off with a non-Jewish man from outside the ghetto – and as a result he’s even more determined to claim the forfeit from Antonio when he fails to repay the debt.


This is a solid rather than spectacular adaptation, one which stays faithful to the material and period setting rather than trying to give it any original spin. If you prefer your Shakespeare to be traditional rather than modern you’ll love this – but even though it’s handsomely staged and well-acted there’s little here to make it stand out from the crowd of recent adaptations.


However, Pacino’s performance alone makes it worth seeing – despite a slightly dodgy accent, he brings a different side to a character who is often thought of as evil. Yes, his Shylock does make a living as a loan shark, but as the film reminds us, Jews in the 16th Century were barred from other professions – leaving him with little choice.


And yes, he does eventually go too far in his quest for revenge, but given the way in which he is treated by the non-Jews of Venice, to say nothing of his daughter’s behaviour, can anybody honestly blame him? Pacino plays Shylock as a man whose actions are based more on anger than bloodlust – meaning that when his downfall does come, it makes for decidedly uncomfortable viewing. In short, it’s one of the best portrayals of the character that you’re likely to see.


The Merchant Of Venice is out now, certificate PG