Jade's Trick

Reviews, Spotlights, and Randomosity of all things under the sun.

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Saturday, June 04, 2005

"If you tickle us do we not laugh?" -- William Shakespeare's the Merchant of Venice

I've wanted to see this movie since it was first released on the, uh, lead screen some months ago, but certain circumstances prevented that outing from occurring. Too bad, too, as this is an extraordinary film.

William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice is a screen adaptation of Shakespeare's play of the same name. Of all his plays, this one is one of the touchiest, being the subject of much criticism for the perceived anti-semitic bias. Now, such a claim insults both the play and Shakespeare, for it simplifies a script which clearly intends to be complex (and, indeed, is). There is anti-semitism, and the "villain" is a man of Jewish descent and religion, but the play overall can easily be used to display how wrong prejudice is (it can also be used to push anti-semitism, but given the sparcity of stage directions in Shakespeare's plays, any of them can potentially be misconstrued however you like).

As always, I will alert you to my personal shortcomings and strengths which may tint my analysis: I have not read The Merchant of Venice, and I find Shakespeare rather easy to read. However, I don't think either of these will affect the review as I'm reviewing the movie just like any other movie, and the actors are so good that the play is made wholly accessible. Onward, march!

Let's start with the acting. In a word, superb. Rather than exhaust my personal supply of superlatives, I shall merely state that there was not so much as an extra with inferior acting ability. Shylock and Portia both deserve special mention, as they both pull of exceedingly difficult roles with perfect ease; Pachino plays Shylock as both menacing and sympathetic; Portia runs the gamut of emotions, and Collins perfectly slams them all. Perhaps the best acting comes, surprisingly, when a character is not speaking; the lines are delivered well, which is to be expected, but these actors pay attention to everyone's lines and react accordingly.

Another major boon, the visuals. I know it's trite, but only "visually stunning" properly describes this movie. Renaissance Venice is the stage upon which this play is enacted, and it could not feel more real without a Smell-O-Rama machine installed into the DVD case. Never for a moment does the audience question anything they see, which is one of the highest compliments anyone can give to the cinematography. Certain shots just really stick with you, such as the vista view of Portia's estate-island and the ending image of servants catching fish with bows at the rising of the sun.

The music drenches the film in a slightly sad splendor. Very renaissance-sounding instruments strum out of very renaissance-sounding score, creating a highly complex atmosphere for a highly complex movie. Thus, it complements, and does not distract from, the story, characters, and lines.

Let's chat about that complexity I've been telling you so much about. It is impossible to completely hate or to completely love any character in this movie. Like real people, they all have their virtues and their vices, their admirable qualities and their detestabilities. Antonio is very generous and has a good degree of humility, but is also an emo and a bigot. Bassanio is handsome, eloquent, and loyal, but also a mooch and not the best at keeping his oaths. Portia is intelligent, beautiful, also eloquent, and tricksy, but also seems to have a bit of a sadistic, scheming streak. And finally, the most complex of them all, Shylock has been the target of extreme racial and religious persecution, has lost his daughter, and gets some of the very best lines in the movie (his "if you prick us, do we not bleed?" speech inflicts goosebumps), but he also says some very unsympathetic things about his daughter, and there's the whole pound of flesh thing. It's great fun being always up in the air, although it does require some investment of thought from the audience.

And then, of course, there's the screenplay. It's basically Shakespeare with some cuts (as almost all Shakespeare is shown), so the words spoken are obviously excellent, but the pacing is also very very well done (it drags just a little bit in the beginning, but overall moves quite swiftly). And as I mentioned above, this is a very accessible version of the play, so don't expect to have to go in with a dictionary.

One of the few things I did not like about this movie was the nudity; essentially, you see the exposed breasts of whores in passing several times. It just seemed rather gratuitous to me, and it feels so stupid for a collective thirty seconds of stuff in the background to bump an otherwise entirely PG movie up to R. Don't get me wrong: there should be prostitutes here (as not only does it make the setting feel more real but also poses an interesting question: why can there be Christian whores but not Christian moneylenders?), but it's just such a small thing to give the movie the rating it has.

Action: n/a.
Acting: 4.75/5 silver caskets (The performances showcased here are all truly Great Acting).
Comedy: 2.5/5 false moustaches (Hey, this is a Comedy, right? Well, sorta. It's really only a Comedy by construction, as it isn't really very funny, and what funny parts there are are few and far between).
Story: 4.5/5 red hats (One or two little things could have been a tiny bit clearer, but otherwise the story was very interesting).
Screenplay: 5/5 ducats (It's Shakespeare jury-rigged to film well. What more could you want?).
Visuals: 4.5/5 sunrise-glinting lakes (Merchant films very prettily).

Overall (not necessarily determined by the above categories): 4.25/5 portraits of Portia (This is one darned good Shakespeare film. There are a few I like more than it, but it has earned its place among the pantheon).

3 Comments:

Anonymous TCM said...

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12:57 PM  
Blogger Blaine Tog said...

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And I'm cheap.

1:44 AM  
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7:57 AM  

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