William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice (review)

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The Bard’s powerful tale of love and revenge, injustice and mercy gets a lush new mounting from writer/director Michael Radford, and its vibrant period setting serves as a stirring contrast to how relevant its motifs of seething hate, hypocrisy, and intolerance remain today. Sixteenth-century Venice is here vital and lively, thanks in large part to the (mostly) extraordinary cast: Joseph Fiennes (Sinbad: Legend of the 7 Seas) has never been better, imbuing the aristocrat Bassanio with an intelligent, considered romanticism to counter his dandified rashness. Lynn Collins (who’s appeared in tiny roles in films like 13 Going on 30) is a real find, making one of the most memorable debuts in recent years, her Portia full of an elegant sass, her command of the screen reminiscent of Cate Blanchett’s. Only Al Pacino (The Recruit), badly miscast as Shylock, is a crushing disappointment, one that weighs down the whole production with the air of a vanity project gone bad. Perhaps in a 21st-century updating of the arrogant moneylender who uses his sudden power to gain payback for years of institutional oppression, Pacino’s Bronx-born-and-bred attitude and diction would inject a new energy and dimension to the character. But even Pacino, stiff and self-conscious in a way I’ve never seen him before, seems to know how out of his element he is here.

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