William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice (2004) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

The words above represent the full title of the film. I can't imagine the logic behind including Shakespeare's name, since anybody who would have any interest in seeing The Merchant of Venice would know the author's name. I can only guess that they had to include that information in order to distinguish it from "Mickey Spillane's The Merchant of Venice" which, while rather lacking in the niceties of iambic pentameter, did include many more action scenes with "booze-swilling Venetian broads" and "tough Italian mugs packing their roscoes"

What's in a name? That which we call a rose, by any other name ... 

Wait a minute. That's a bunch o' crap. Oh, yeah, maybe it is true when applied to roses, but let's apply it to products, shall we? Which tampon would your wife be more likely to buy - Summer Fresh, or Leaky Sandpaper? A movie is a product, and the name can be important, especially if one sinks thirty million dollars into an Elizabethan drama which will be passed over by all but the most discriminating ticket buyers. If I had been in charge of naming this film, I would have called it Dirty Dancing at the Star Wars Canteen, in an attempt to get the all-important "female tweener" and "male fanboy" audiences, which together comprise somewhere around 105% of the ticket purchases in America.

All kidding aside, this is one of the very best Shakespearean adaptations I've ever seen on film, and is certainly the best version of this particular play which I have ever seen in any medium. I could cite many positives, like the beauty of the Venetian imagery and the music, and I will also cite some negatives below, but that is all really window dressing. My central argument all boils down to one thing: clarity. Under almost any circumstances, it is damned hard to understand Shakespeare. I have taken several courses in Elizabethan Drama, and have read a lot more on my own. I've seen a few dozen live performances and every major movie. I have read every one of his plays and have most of the famous passages memorized. Even given all of those facts, I normally have a hard time understanding many passages and scenes if I have not reviewed the written text just before viewing the performance. It's just difficult to understand all the details, because Elizabethan English is virtually a foreign language to 21st century speakers.

I reckon this is probably a bigger problem for most of you than for me, since you probably don't take it quite as seriously as I do, unless you are genuine scholars like our occasional contributor Mick Locke. Because of the comprehensibility problem, we modern viewers are dependent on the actors and the directors to make everything clear to us. What we need from Shakespearean actors in modern times is not necessarily what was important to Elizabethan audiences. Since the play was in their language, 16th century audiences were able to follow the plot details and understand the jokes easily, so the most important task for the actors was simply to deliver the beauty and emotional power of the language. Many Shakespearean performances are still delivered with that in mind, but that just doesn't work for us if we can't understand the words. Sure it's beautiful language, but it might as well be beautiful Swahili. The modern Shakespearean actor has to place the meaning above the rhythm and beauty of the poetry, and almost everyone in this film has done a marvelous job of that. I was able to understand not only the gist of it, but the details of virtually every sentence. Not only did they deliver the lines in a lucid manner, but they took great pains to think about how they viewed their characters and precisely what they needed to do to project their interpretations, accentuating all of the words with distinctive vocal mannerisms, pauses, and gestures. Even when I disagreed with their choices, I appreciated the thought that went into them. I didn't really like the Jeremy Irons version of Antonio, for example, but I can see that Irons established his character and kept it consistent. (No disrespect intended to Irons. Antonio is an impossible role to interpret, for reasons too numerous and complex to detail here.)

The actors were supported ably by the pacing and editing of the film, which allow the viewer to understand not only the precise mechanics of the plot and the attitudes of the characters, but also much about the times in which the action takes place. Especially important are the  background activities of both the main characters and the extras. While we see Shylock in one light in the main plot, the wordless activities on screen give us far more understanding of the context in which Shylock's anger was formed. We see Christians demeaning Jews and tossing them into the canals for sport. In the film's opening, we actually see Antonio spitting contemptuously on Shylock. Although Christians seem to feel that the Jews are heathens, we see gaudy Christian prostitutes flashing their breasts at passers-by while abstemious and devout Jews go about their serious business. Since the director can't add to Shakespeare's words, we need all of this to understand Shylock's rage.

There were two scenes that made me uncomfortable:

  • One of Portia's suitors is an African chieftain, and this character and his entourage seem to be portrayed beyond the boundaries of our modern sensitivity to racial stereotyping. I'm not saying the scene was "bad Shakespeare". Indeed, given the attitudes of 16th century England, this interpretation could have been precisely what Shakespeare had in mind. Unfortunately, many centuries have passed, our modern ears have been tuned to a different frequency, and this scene played out like a racist minstrel show. I guess I may be over-reacting, but my gut tells me that the director should have turned down the laughs and allowed the African character to play out his humiliation with more dignity, even though Shakespeare may not have seen it that way.

  • There is one scene where Portia comes off as a shrill, unpleasant woman. If you remember the play, there are three scenes between Portia and Bassanio involving a ring. In the first, Portia gives Bassanio her ring, and he swears an oath that the ring will not leave his finger while he lives. Later, when Portia is disguised as a male lawyer and gets Bassanio's buddy off the hook on the "pound of flesh" deal, he/she demands the ring as payment for legal services. Finally, in a third scene, Portia confronts Bassanio for having broken his oath. The third scene must be handled delicately, because we know that any reasonable woman would forgive Bassanio for having broken his vow in this extreme case, but we also know that Portia really wants to bust his chops for a while to see his reaction and to see if he tells the truth. Frankly, Shakespeare himself is at fault here, because we leave the scene with the impression that Bassanio would never break the oath again under any circumstances. Huh? So if Bassanio ever has to choose again between his friend's life and a hunk of metal, he'll have to go with the metal? In order for the scene to work, Portia must be seen as having a good-natured laugh at Bassanio's expense before revealing her ruse, and she must not be seen as a mini-Shylock, insisting that a promise has greater value than a human life. I believe this third scene was mishandled in this film. Portia came off as a queen biatch. Had I been Bassanio, I would have asked Portia if her imaginary lawyer also handled divorces.

Look, let's be honest here. I have not researched this play carefully, and I'm no expert on interpreting Shakespeare in general, while the director obviously put a lot of research and thought into the various ways those scenes could be presented, and he ultimately decided on those renderings.

But I have to say that those two scenes just made me cringe.

Apart from my quibbling about those scenes, my hat is off to director Michael Radford. He envisioned how he wanted this project to work, he cast the actors perfectly, he directed them to perform according to his consistent vision, he placed them in interesting settings, and he clarified every detail and nuance of the plot with editing and camera work.

I've liked just about every movie he's ever made, although that isn't many, since we can consider ourselves fortunate to get one from him every three or four years. The amazing thing to me is that you'd never guess the following movies were all the work of the same guy.

  1. The Merchant of Venice (2004)
  2. Dancing at the Blue Iguana (2000)
  3. B. Monkey (1998)
  4. Il Postino (1994)
  5. White Mischief (1987)
  6. Nineteen Eighty-Four (1984)
  7. Another Time, Another Place (1983)
  • Dancing at the Blue Iguana is a movie about strippers in which the actresses improvised much of their own characterization and dialogue. It has a kind of cinema verité, real-time feel to it which verges on docudrama.

  • B. Monkey is a tightly scripted and poetic story about the unlikely relationship between a male kindergarten teacher and a hardened female criminal. (I called it the European version of Modern Romance).

  • Il Postino - you may be familiar with this one, because it won a pile of awards -  is kind of a highbrow film about a postman who learns to love poetry as a result of making deliveries to a poet, and then uses his awakened soul to woo his lady-love. Unlike most arty films, it leads from the heart, not the brain.

  • 1984 is the John Hurt version of the Orwell story, and it seemed to catch the spirit of the book beautifully

What do those films have in common with each other? Beats me. There are not many threads running through that list. But the ones I have seen are all pretty damned good. Of course, Radford tends to disappoint his audiences. Those who loved Il Postino had to be saying "WTF?" if they rented Blue Iguana because it had the same director. Obviously Radford likes to challenge himself. When he was 54, he made his wildest, freest, most innovative movie (Blue Iguana), the kind of spontaneous, experimental film that guys make when they are just out of film school. He then followed that up with a filmed version of Shakespeare, which requires the actors to deliver the lines exactly as written, allowing for no improv at all. I suppose Radford must be an interesting (and obviously very flexible) guy.

Anyway, this film is a must-see if you like Shakespeare. It should be made the absolute standard for people studying the play in school, simply because the play completely carries itself and can therefore be shown uninterrupted. Having been on both sides of the desk, I can tell you that nothing is more irritating for the teacher or the student than having to stop Shakespeare every 10 minutes for an explanation.

Unfortunately, this version will not really end up in schools because there are background breasts everywhere, supplied by the Venetian prostitutes!

Yup, you heard me. All of this and a steady parade of topless chicks as well!

"Gee, mom, I got a part in The Merchant of Venice with Al Pacino"

"Oh, honey, how wonderful! We knew you would make it in serious drama. Which part do you play?"

"Umm ..."



  • Commentary by Michael Radford and Lynn Collins
  • Mastered in high definition
  • Featurette: Behind-the-scenes making-of
  • Web link to teacher's guide


There is a steady procession of topless prostitutes and courtesans in the background of various scenes.

The Critics Vote ...

  • Super-panel consensus: two and a half stars. Roger Ebert 3/4 stars, James Berardinelli 2.5/4.

  • British consensus out of four stars: two and a half stars. Mail 5/10, Telegraph 6/10, Independent 5/10, Guardian 8/10, Times 6/10, Sun 7/10, Express 8/10, BBC 3/5.

The People Vote ...

  • Box Office Mojo. It was budgeted at $30 million. It grossed three million in the USA, eight million overseas.


The meaning of the IMDb score: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence equivalent to about three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, comparable to approximately two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, equivalent to about a two star rating from the critics, or a C- from our system. Films rated below five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film - this score is roughly equivalent to one and a half stars from the critics or a D on our scale. (Possibly even less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. (C+ means it has no crossover appeal, but will be considered excellent by genre fans, while C- indicates that it we found it to be a poor movie although genre addicts find it watchable). D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well. Any film rated C- or better is recommended for fans of that type of film. Any film rated B- or better is recommended for just about anyone. We don't score films below C- that often, because we like movies and we think that most of them have at least a solid niche audience. Now that you know that, you should have serious reservations about any movie below C-.

Based on this description, this is a C+. Very enjoyable and provocative interpretation for Shakespeare lovers to see and debate. Not really a crossover film, but those who don't get into Shakespeare will find this movie easier to understand than most attempts at filmed Bard.

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