Film Review: The Merchant of Venice (2001)

“For your love I pray you, wrong me not”

Any filmed adaptation of The Merchant of Venice is up against it for me as I adore the Al Pacino version from 2004 which makes so much sense of so many of the difficulties of the play. This Trevor Nunn production was a big success for the National Theatre, transferring from the then-Cottesloe to the Olivier, winning all sorts of awards and then filmed for the US’s Masterpiece Theatre.

And as is often the case with these stage-to-screen adaptations, it’s a little flat and disappointing, little concession made to the change in medium and so the abiding feeling is that one is left wishing one could have seen it onstage. Which is a shame, as Henry Goodman makes an excellent Shylock, viciously vengeful but clearly victimised too in this adroit resituating of the play to the 1930s.

At a moment when fascism was very much on the rise between the two world wars, the innate anti-Semitism needs little explanation and indeed gains in purchase for the chilling realisation of Shakespeare’s prescience in the endurance of humanity’s baser notes. Andrew French’s Launcelot plays this up well with the darkest of humour and it is effectively worked throughout the production.

For my liking though, there’s too little atmosphere and Nunn’s glacial pacing thus feels exacerbated. David Bamber and Alexander Hanson don’t quite spark as Antonio and Bassanio, though Derbhle Crotty’s Portia is most striking when disguised in court. And though it is always lovely to see Mark Umbers, even in as small a role as this, I’ll stick with Pacino, Irons and Fiennes for now.

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