The reason to see "The Merchant of Venice" is Al Pacino, and to see what one of our greatest living hams -- I mean that as a compliment, mostly -- can do when he underplays. Pacino takes Shylock, perhaps the most insistent and troubling character in all of Shakespeare, and roots him powerfully to the ground. Dressed in thick layers of robes, eyes glowing like hot coals under the red hat he is forced to wear as a Venetian Jew, this Shylock is a cement roadblock, an implacable force, and he's so delighted that the law, for once, is working in his favor that he can see nothing but retribution.
It's been a question for more than four centuries whether the Venetians and the Bard play Shylock fair -- whether the character is an anti-Semitic caricature or "merely" a humane and beautifully written product of Shakespeare's ignorance. There are other characters and subplots in the play, but Shylock is the reason Michael Radford's film is the first big-screen version of "The Merchant of Venice" since the silent era. The character poses questions that can never be answered -- that say discomfiting things about the person playing him and the audience watching him -- and, though he's in only five scenes, Shylock towers over any production.
He towers over this one, despite competition from Jeremy Irons as Antonio, the merchant of Venice himself. Wealthy and worldweary, Antonio allows his love for the young adventurer Bassanio (Joseph Fiennes) to sway him into borrowing money from Shylock, so that Bassanio may travel to the leafy retreat of Belmont -- apparently just down the road from the Glade of Medford -- and woo the lady Portia (Lynn Collins). Antonio isn't concerned about repaying the debt: His ships will come in and all will be well. Fine, says Shylock, then why not agree to an unusual repayment schedule: Break the bond and forfeit a pound of your flesh.
We know why Shylock is so hardhearted; Shakespeare has him describe how the merchant has cursed and spat on the Jew, "and all for use of that which is mine own," and Radford obligingly visualizes the scene in the film's opening moments, with Irons rearing back and firing an unrepentant gob into Pacino's face. The latter takes the insult and uses it to fuel his performance; this Shylock is driven by tribal pride, ethnic pride, personal pride, and simple fury. The famous "Hath not a Jew eyes?" speech isn't a plea for common ground here, it's a barked, urgent rationale for vengeance.
Pacino has so much force, in fact, that the rest of the movie just about rolls over and plays dead. The scenes in Belmont are pleasant but thin in comparison: Newcomer Collins gets Portia's innate wisdom but little of her charm, and the sequences in which her princely suitors must choose the correct chest to win her hand feel inert and stage-bound. Kris Marshall and Heather Goldenhersh are winningly cheeky as the second-tier romantic couple Gratiano and Nerissa, but Radford never gets a handle on how the elopement of Bassiano's friend Lorenzo (Charlie Cox) and Shylock's daughter Jessica (Zuleikha Robinson) relates to the rest of the play. He even lops off the lovely back-and-forth banter between them that opens Act 5, in which they jokingly compare themselves to legendary lovers and wedge "Merchant" more firmly in the crack between comedy and tragedy.
The play is considered one of Shakespeare's comedies and was initially performed with "funny" Shylocks wearing fake noses, but it has been played more darkly as far back as the early 18th century. Radford splits the difference, with stormy, crowded scenes in Venice (complete with historically accurate rouged nipples on the prostitutes) and golden romantic amusements in the Belmont sequences.
Eventually we get to the trial scene, where the two strands presumably fuse. Antonio has broken his bond -- the merchant ships have gone missing -- and Shylock takes him to court to extract his pound. Portia, disguised as a young man of legal expertise, argues for mercy over vengeance. Between them is the pale figure of Antonio, arms outstretched, ready to be crucified. I'm not sure it's what Radford intended, but Mel Gibson might well enjoy this part of the movie.
In any event, it's not much of a contest. Portia wins the case, ironically by sticking closer to the letter of the law than Shylock, but Pacino wipes the floor with the rest of the cast, and he does it by rasping out the character's curt, unflowery lines with hushed force. This isn't a screaming-Pacino performance; it's quieter and much sadder.
But how Jewish is it? And does it matter? Shakespeare himself most likely never met a Jew in his life: With rare exceptions, there were none in Elizabethan England and hadn't been since Edward I kicked them out in 1290. The playwright had his sources in earlier entertainments and popular culture, though, and he managed to rise above them by writing a character able, in the right hands, to become three-dimensional.
Certainly Shylock can be played anti-Semitically, as productions staged in Nazi Germany attest, and the history of Shylocks through the centuries, from Charles Macklin to Edmund Kean and beyond, is a gallery that encompasses lip-smacking villains and wronged antiheroes. But it may be that Shylock makes us uncomfortable because he's supposed to make us uncomfortable -- because he feeds our fear of the Other, because he exposes the limits of law and burgeoning capitalism, and because what happens to him is not fair, even as comedy. In that sense, this "Merchant" is, in the end, a little too easygoing. Nevertheless, when Pacino croaks his final line -- "I am content" -- and Shylock stands in the knowledge of his total ruin, it's an ugly, ugly sight.
Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com.