Friday, November 21, 2008

Watch Jeremy Irons suffer

One of the benefits of being sick is that you do things like watch movies you have been meaning to get to for a while (that is, if you're not so sick that you end up watching marathons of America's Next Top Model, as I once did and then prayed for death rather than such suffering).

So I finally got around to Michael Radford's lush period film of The Merchant of Venice, starring Jeremy Irons, Joseph Fiennes, and Al Pacino as Shylock. An interesting film. Too lush and rather erratically paced and clunky in parts, with very different acting all around. Fiennes brings the kind of crazily intense emotional register that made him famous in Shakespeare in Love; Irons brings his understated suffering that my brother mocks so much, a really fine performance; Pacino is great to watch, and yet his speech patterns do jar a little bit sometimes, a little bit "on this, the day of my daughter's wedding." For me, Lynn Collins was a real discovery. A very fine actress, very classical and subtle, with beautiful diction (she's an American putting on a British accent here). The famous courtroom scene with Pacino was extremely interesting. I never really thought enough about just how polar these two characters are, and this is the first time that they meet in spite of the fact that the whole play turns on them both.

This film was mostly talked about for The Kiss, a rather quick peck between Bassanio (Fiennes) and Antonio (Irons). Radford motivated the whole sacrificial loan bit and the final test with Portia's ring, in which Bassanio gives away the ring he swore to her that he'd keep forever to the man (he thinks) who saved Antonio's life, with a love triangle. Antonio and Bassanio have such a deep love between them -- in this version, sexual as well -- that Portia quickly identifies it as a threat to her own future relationship with her husband. By scaring and forgiving her husband, she ensures that he will prioritize her in the future, leaving poor Antonio rather out in the cold in spite of having saved his life. Incidentally, Radford mentioned in the director's commentary that he had to cut The Kiss for American TV, as well as the Veronese frescoes in the background that show some nudity. Ashcroft and his purple velvet drapes, anybody?

Pacino did a fine job with the most famous speech, "Hath not a Jew eyes?" He's quite sympathetic, helped along by some judicious cuts, but there is no getting away from the ultimate ruthlessness of the character. What I found interesting was the portrayal of his daughter Jessica, who in the play is also rather ruthless, robbing her father and running off with a Venetian gentleman. She trades her father's ring that was given to him by her dead mother for a monkey, producing one of Shylock's most sympathetic moments. But the film actually ends with Jessica staring across the water (presumably towards Venice, where her father is now an outcast) and fingering that very ring. Her melancholy and guilt are probably the most drastic modifications to this play's controversial anti-Semitism that could possibly be made. I found it a very interesting film version.

For comparison, try the '70s-ish version with Laurence Olivier as Shylock. Heretical though it may be, I really found more food for thought in this one.

Btw, Lynn Collins will next be seen onscreen as Silver Fox in Wolverine. Seriously.

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