Once upon a time, Al Pacino was among the most talented and imaginative actors to grace the screen. Today, however, he seems content to follow the lead of his “Godfather” co-star Marlon Brando and use the motion picture medium to make a public fool of himself.
Pacino’s latest atrocity is his performance as Shylock in “The Merchant of Venice.” Pacino doing Shakespeare? Can he pull it off? Hell no! Pacino is completely unable to grasp the distinct cadences of the Shakespearean text and his tries to hide his shortcomings by stretching his lines to the fraying point. Each sentence is delivered in a weirdly elliptical, singsong manner which is spiced by a faint Yiddish accent. If you can imagine Yoda imitating Jackie Mason, you’ll have an idea of Pacino’s speech pattern. On several occasions, he launches into his “Scent of a Woman” persona and begins bellowing like a crazed moose. Pacino never loses his Bronx diction, so in this case Shylock petitions the court with the demand “I crave da law!” Not since Lucille Ball croaked her way through “Mame” 30 years ago has an actor been so dreadfully wrong for a part.
But beyond Pacino’s miscasting, “The Merchant of Venice” has very little to offer. Director Michael Radford seems to have forgotten that most of the Shakespearean text is actually a romantic comedy. The traditionally rich comic sequences of Portia’s suitors facing the puzzling test to gain her fortune and the final scene when Portia quizzes Bassanio on the whereabouts of his ring have no flavor to them whatsoever. Rather than wry humor, Radford opts for atrocious ethnic humor with Portia’s suitors (the African chieftain and his entourage represent the worst on-screen minstrelry this side of “The Green Pastures”) or sour snarky sneers (Portia’s inquistion about the absent ring should be reason enough for Bassanio to seek a divorce lawyer).
Unlike Pacino, the rest of the cast can handle the dialogue without problems. They just don’t have any passion for the words they are saying. Jeremy Irons as Antonio spends a lot of time looking off camera, as if he’s trying to locate the agent who landed him in this fiasco. Joseph Fiennes’ Bassanio and Lynn Collins’ Portia have no chemistry, and their time together is so lacking any connection that it often feels like a split-screen effect. Veteran British TV comedy actors John Sessions and Anton Rodgers show up in small roles as Salerio and The Duke, but they have literally nothing to do but look aghast at the fumbling and bumbling around them.
Radford tries to negate the anti-Semitic elements of “The Merchant of Venice” with a new prologue explaining the historic intolerance towards the Jews in 16th century Europe. There are also scenes of a Jewish man being thrown by bullies into a canal and pious Jews praying in the synagogue. This is well-meaning, but Radford goes further to oomph up the film with more scenes not in the Shakespeare text: a lamb has its throat slit, Bassanio contemplates eating a decapitated pigeon, bare-breasted w****s allow filthy men to fondle their tits, and Bassanio and Antonio kiss on the lips in a manner which goes beyond mere friendship. This is not an adaptation of Shakespeare – it is a desecration.
The film does have one redeeming value: the production was given rare access to the Venetian landmarks and it is a thrill to see Rialto Bridge, the Doge’s Palace and other Venice landmarks up close. Unfortunately, this is not a travelogue and even the architectural splendor of Venice cannot hide the painful fact this film is the single worst Shakespeare film ever made. It is also the worst film I’ve seen in 2004.