William Shakespeare's The Merchant Of Venice US Theatrical Release: September 3, 2004 (Wide release: December 29, 2004) (Sony Pictures Classics) US DVD Release: May 10, 2005 Running Time: 2:11:17 (28 chapter stops) Rating: R (For some nudity) (Note: The MPAA ought to be ashamed of themselves.) Video: 2.35:1 Anamorphic (Extra Features: 1.78:1 anamorphic) Audio: English DD5.1 (Extra Features: English DD2.0) Subtitles: French (Extra Features: French) TV-Generated Closed Captions: English Menus: Not animated Packaging: Standard keepcase; single-sheet insert has cover images for other titles on both sides. MSRP: $26.96 THE WAY I FEEL ABOUT IT: 4/5 In some ways silly and in some ways fascinating, The Merchant Of Venice is one of Shakespeare's best known and most controversial works. Despite its fame, it hasn't been the subject of many filmic interpretations due to the touchy subject matter of one of its major plotlines (ironically, though, it has had several made-for-television productions). In this new interpretation, writer/ director Michael Radford eschews the common practice of translating Shakespearean material to non-Shakespearean settings and places the story firmly in context as a period piece. Venice, 1596. The scene is set by a few paragraphs of introductory text that explain the plight of the city's Jews. Forbidden to own property, forced to live in a walled ghetto, and subject to persecution by their Christian neighbors, they do what they can to survive. Since Christians are forbidden by law from lending money at interest, Jews provide that necessary service. (Never mind that Christians are also technically forbidden from borrowing money at interest -- it takes money to make money, right?) And that service becomes essential to our story. Bassanio (Joseph Fiennes) is a young man in search of love. What he lacks in finances, he makes up for in gallantry and wit. He believes that he's found the woman of his dreams: Portia (Lynn Collins), a lonely orphan hidden away in a fabulous island villa. In order to court her, however, he'll need to at least display a façade of wealth. For help, he turns to his close friend Antonio (Jeremy Irons), a successful merchant, for a loan of 3,000 ducats. Unfortunately, Antonio's assets are tied up in a number of shipping ventures, and he doesn't have that princely sum on hand. Undeterred, Bassanio and Antonio pay a visit to the Jewish ghetto to secure a loan. They meet with Shylock (Al Pacino), a moneylender who has been treated with nothing but scorn by Antonio in the past. Despite the bad blood between them, Antonio doesn't hesitate to ask Shylock for money, and Shylock doesn't hesitate to give Antonio his business. However, the terms of the deal proposed by Shylock are unusual, to say the least. Shylock proposes that, in lieu of paying interest, Antonio forfeit a "pound of flesh" should he default on the loan. Although Bassanio feels that this is a good time to seek funding elsewhere, Antonio, confident in the success of his current ventures and glad to avoid paying interest, accepts the terms. Antonio's deep feelings for Bassanio (more on that later) are such that Antonio is more than happy to take any risk for his young friend. Taking the cash, Bassanio gathers himself some snazzy duds and a posse and sets off to woo the lovely Portia. In the meantime, all of Antonio's ships are wrecked at sea, leaving him penniless and unable to repay Shylock. And just to stir the pot, Shylock's daughter Jessica (Zuleikha Robinson) elopes with Lorenzo (Charlie Cox), a Christian. This is where things get interesting -- but not entirely. The film alternates between the powerfully dramatic story of Shylock and Antonio and the oft times vapid story of Bassanio and his friends wooing their girlfriends. By delving deeply into Shylock's psyche, the film presents an original and interesting look at the character and his actions. On the other hand, much of the play's comic storyline is cut, leaving a rather lightweight sitcom behind. Although the Bard's iambic pentameter is always beautiful to hear, some of the romantic scenes in this production feel like a distraction from the concurrent meatier drama. The Merchant Of Venice, while technically a comedy, can be approached from a number of angles. On its face, it is a light romantic comedy involving a bad guy who happens to be a Jew because all moneylenders of the day were Jewish. The persecution of and condescension towards Shylock was simply the social norm of the 16th Century. But Shakespeare, as he often does, takes this breezy entertainment to another level. By giving Shylock a number of eloquent speeches, he imbues his villain with a humanity that gives the play room to explore issues of tolerance and bigotry. Radford and Pacino take the opportunity to focus on Shylock and the things that make him behave as he does. In their interpretation, he is played as a man who is driven to a sort of madness rather than an inherently vicious antagonist. They have succeeded in presenting a more sympathetic Shylock. Al Pacino is impressive in his second Shakespearean film performance (after 1996's Looking For Richard, which he also wrote and directed), keeping quite restrained at first, and gradually bringing more emotion to the surface as Shylock goes over the edge. Unfortunately, his enunciation leaves something to be desired. It's difficult to tell whether he was going for some sort of specific accent, but to be frank, he pronounces a lot of words strangely. It can get a little distracting. The rest of the cast is also excellent, especially Jeremy Irons, who plays Antonio in a way that modern audiences will read as romantic love for Bassanio, but who explains in the included featurette that it's not actual homosexuality, but a deep male friendship that was common in Elizabethan times. (A final interpretation is left as an exercise for the viewer.) Joseph Fiennes and Lynn Collins, as the primary couple, were born for this kind of material. And many of the supporting players, especially Kris Marshall as Gratiano, add great color to their scenes. There is one flaw in the story that is difficult to avoid, but that is a common device of old Will's. That is the use of women disguised in drag. Back in the day, when only men portrayed both sexes on stage, this was an easy trick to pull off (think Victor/ Victoria in reverse). On film, with close-ups of actresses and boom mikes picking up clear female voices, it doesn't work as well, and here it detracts greatly from the climactic courtroom scene. Theoretically, it might have been possible to replace the disguised females with invented male characters, although that could have been just as jarring from a purist's standpoint as is a man not recognizing his own wife while conversing with her. Finally, the film's rating should be addressed. Frankly, the MPAA should be ashamed of themselves. This film's 'R' rating is due entirely to a few shots of prostitutes with exposed chests (as the director explains in the commentary, Venetian prostitutes at the time were required by law to keep their breasts exposed as proof of their gender). There is almost no sexual activity (beyond a tiny bit of kissing and fondling), and only a single violent (yet bloodless) event (a man is tossed off a canal bridge by a mob). The only graphic moment involves the slaughter of a goat at a meat market. If a child under 17 is precocious enough to enjoy the Elizabethan dialogue, then he'll be bright enough to handle the mildly naughty bits in this film. THE WAY I SEE IT: 2/5 The image is only OK. Colors are rich, and for the most part, edge enhancement is kept under control. However, there is a lot of digital noise in the picture. Compression artifacts are visible in many scenes, especially those which are darkly lit. There is also a fair amount of flickering that comes and goes. Overall, detail is a bit soft. THE WAY I HEAR IT: 3/5 The soundtrack is decent, with occasional period-style music and nice use of the surrounds. Dialogue is often rather boomy, possibly due to the acoustics in the authentic shooting locations. This renders some words difficult to make out, which highlights the unfortunate lack of subtitles. THE SWAG: 3/5 (rating combines quality and quantity) Audio Commentary With Writer/ Director Michael Radford and Actress Lynn Collins Michael Radford gives a good, solid discussion of the production, the actors, the adaptation, and the period details. While he's very interesting, Ms. Collins giggles and tries to break the record for most uses of the word "fantastic" in a single commentary track. Fortunately, Radford dominates the track, making it well worth a listen. The Merchant Of Venice: Shakespeare Through The Lens (29:30) Several members of the cast and crew discuss various aspects of the production. There is some good material here, but it goes something like this: Someone talks about an interesting topic for 15 seconds, followed by a 15-second film clip, followed by someone talking about a not-so-interesting topic for 15 seconds, followed by a 15-second film clip, repeated as many times as will fit into the magical sub-30-minute featurette running time. Some behind-the-scenes footage would have been nice. Overall, it's a decent piece. The Teacher's Guide Weblink (for Classroom Study) This very original extra is a collection of essays, study activities, discussion questions, and a bibliography about the play, the movie, and their historical context by Mary E. Cregan, a professor at Barnard College (part of Columbia University). There's a lot of interesting stuff to look at here. Dial-up users should be aware that this links directly to a PDF file that is over 3 MB in size, so they should be prepared to wait a bit. It's worthwhile, though - this is possibly the best text feature ever included in a DVD. Ironically, extra features don't get much more "interactive" than this food for thought and discussion. Note that the file can also be accessed directly from the movie website at www.sonyclassics.com/merchantofvenice. There's some other interesting material on the website as well, like actor bios, behind-the-scenes photos, and production notes, that could have been included on the disc itself. Previews: Six trailers are included. They can be selected from the main menu or the Special Features menu. William Shakespeare's The Merchant Of Venice (2:18) (DD5.1; 2.35:1 anamorphic) Being Julia (2:12) (DD5.1; 1.78:1 anamorphic) In My Country (2.10) (DD5.1; 1.78:1 anamorphic) House Of Flying Daggers (0:33) (DD2.0; 1.33:1 non-anamorphic; actual film image is letterboxed) Cirque Du Soleil: Solstrom (1:40) (DD2.0; 1.78:1 anamorphic) Creature Comforts: The Complete Series (1:41) (DD2.0; 1.33:1 non-anamorphic) SUMMING IT ALL UP The Way I Feel About It: 4/5 The Way I See It: 2/5 The Way I Hear It: 3/5 The Swag: 3/5 Every couple of years, we get a new big-screen adaptation of one of Shakespeare's better-known works, and Michael Radford's William Shakespeare's The Merchant Of Venice is a worthy addition to the genre. The cast and production are first-rate. It's a shame that the presentation isn't better, but it is passable. The extra features are good, although deleted scenes (some of which are mentioned in the commentary) would have been nice. After all, what deleted scenes could be more worth seeing than deleted scenes that were written by William Shakespeare? At any rate, despite the room for A/V improvement, this intriguing new look at a classic scores a RECOMMENDATION from me.