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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Jew of Malibu
by Donald Levit

At the end of the day, or a night at the Mermaid Tavern, the Sweet Swan of Avon wrote, not for future scholarly games, but to fill the Globe Theatre by entertaining, amazing, thrilling. With “exhibitors quak[ing] at the thought of programming Shakespeare,” like-minded California studios have done poorly by the Bard’s plays, aside from Cagney’s Bottom and the odd Wellesian renegade like Mankiewicz, leaving it to the Germans, Brits, Italians, Russians, even Japanese and Poles, to do better.

Two of its four producers are wrong about their film of The Merchant of Venice being the first movie version. Out in video, the 1973 U.K. effort is closer to the author and his stage and alive with its lead pairing of husband and wife Lawrence Olivier and Joan Plowright. “Cut and changed [so] not merely a theatrical production on film,” Michael Radford’s new take on the tale is designedly cinematic and not theatrical but, for all that. a warm, spirited rendition which, without condescending to “relevance,” lines the work up with the twenty-first-century frame of mind.

Not rewriting original dialogue so much as pruning or rearranging, the director’s own script and vision depend greatly on the screen’s sometimes advantageous close-ups, sumptuous but not distracting sets and shadowed lighting (the Elizabethans had but costume, daylight and minimal props) and, given that intimacy of shorter distance, less projected emoting for the back row. (The latter especially benefits Al Pacino, who has long confused shouting with acting.) 

Working to advantage its medium’s more visual nature, the film compresses four original hours by about half, even adding or emphasizing a few nuanced readings of its own and, in place of the playwright’s spoken revelation of necessary past events, “enter[ing] this one before the play started” through an expository pseudo-prologue. Of course, not everything comes off, and there are any number of slipped accents, puzzling interpolations -- e.g., the racist caricature of the Prince of Morocco (David Harewood) and his retinue, or two silhouetted archers in their boats -- an underutilization of minor characters and a surprising degree of flat acting or just plain miscasting.

Still and all, the whole pulls off the task of speaking to today’s general audience (purists and scholars may carp). Hampered in losing the period’s standard gambit of boy actors’ playing female characters who in turn disguise themselves as males, actresses here start out at a certain disadvantage, which they do not overcome. Though Joseph Fiennes is good as Bassanio, the story itself must rise or fall on its Portia and Shylock.

Among Shakespeare’s most intelligently charming heroines, the former does not emerge in Lynn Collins’ portrayal -- even that most famous “quality of mercy” piece is misplayed and unaffecting -- until the final scenes, which will be treasured by advocates of women’s empowerment. (At the other end of the gender spectrum, Jeremy Irons is stiff and unsympathetic as the merchant Antonio, although the film’s interpretation does drop unusual, and intriguing, hints of homoeroticism, a recent spin on Renaissance friendship and the mystery male of the Sonnets.)

Current sensibilities hurry to condemn, defend or explain away literature’s Shylocks and Fagins. But as one editor has pointed out, this “is a Jew, not the Jew.” While detailing Spain’s Inquisition and expulsion of Jews and Moors in 1492, Anglophile history downplays the exile from England over two centuries earlier. In his age of official intolerance, Shakespeare may never knowingly have met an unconverted Hebrew and, combining several current popular stories with perhaps an earlier play, arguably was urged by his company to put something together to rival its competitor’s bloody The Jew of Malta, a successful Marlowe revival spurred by the trial and execution of the Queen’s physician, a converso Portuguese Jew.

Parceling out just rewards -- with marriage as the crown -- and punishments, Shakespeare’s play is romantic comedy, in this case deriving from the superiority of forgiving New Testament mercy over the Old Law’s vengeful eye-for-an-eye. Other issues aside, the money-lender has real grievances, and Pacino’s Shylock deservedly calls forth sympathy. An added scene, in which synagogue doors close to leave the forcibly converted, now-daughterless widower framed alone outside, argues his case as contrast to the rich connubial gaiety of Belmont. Another addition is converted-for-love Jessica’s (Zuleikha Robinson) unexplained reacquisition of a mother’s ring passed down to her by father Shylock; Judaism is, remember, matrilineal. 

(Released by Sony Classics and rated "R" for some nudity.)

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