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Originally published Friday, January 21, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Restrained Pacino brings humanity to weary Shylock

Michael Radford's handsome screen version of "The Merchant of Venice" has a lovely, dusty light; its colors are soft and burnished, like...

Seattle Times movie critic

Michael Radford's handsome screen version of "The Merchant of Venice" has a lovely, dusty light; its colors are soft and burnished, like a Vermeer painting, and its air seems of another world. And the faces who breathe that air have an artistry of their own: the curly, amused smile of Lynn Collins as Portia; the etched lines of Jeremy Irons' face as Antonio; the earnest, classical beauty of Joseph Fiennes as Bassanio; the weariness in the eyes of Al Pacino as Shylock. Shakespeare's language — particularly such gems as "The quality of mercy is not strain'd" and "All that glisters is not gold" — would seem embellishment enough, but Radford gives the words a setting appropriate to their glory.

He's also given this troublesome tale a bit of context. The play (classified among Shakespeare's comedies, though much of it is hardly lighthearted) has long faced charges of anti-Semitism: Shylock, the Jewish moneylender, is a greedy, vengeful character, and his ultimate comeuppance for attempting to extort a "pound of flesh" from the merchant Antonio includes a demand that he convert to Christianity. Yet it's too easy to dismiss a play this way, particularly one that includes the famous "Hath not a Jew eyes?" speech, with the line, "If you prick us, do we not bleed?"

Movie review

Showtimes and trailer 3 stars

"William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice," with Al Pacino, Jeremy Irons, Joseph Fiennes, Lynn Collins, Zuleikha Robinson, Kris Marshall. Written and directed by Michael Radford, based on the play by Shakespeare. 127 minutes. Rated R for some nudity. Neptune.

Radford, director of "Il Postino," adds a prologue to the film, explaining with onscreen title cards that 16th-century Jews in Italy lived in "getos" with gates that were locked at night, and that intolerance of their faith was a fact of life at that time. Listen carefully to the language, and Shylock's character becomes complex and even sympathetic, his flaws stemming from the miserable treatment he has endured.

"Still have I borne it with a patient shrug," he says of the abuse he has received from Antonio, "for sufferance is the badge of all our tribe." And his behavior comes from an easily identified source: those who have mistreated him. "The villainy you teach me," he says, "I will execute."

Pacino's portrayal of him, minus most of the actor's usual bellow-and-swagger gusto, brings a layer of delicacy to the role. His Shylock is tired, worn down by his own grim life, and his speeches feel like he's delivered them before — you sense that he's tired of having to explain his own humanity. It's a restrained performance (well, restrained for Pacino; what's subtle for him would be scenery-chewing from a different actor), and a thoughtful one.

Elsewhere, the lovers carry out their subplot with great delicacy; particularly Collins, who's a real find (she was a late replacement for the pregnant Cate Blanchett). The wise Portia is a challenging role, but Collins finds a delightful sense of humor within her character; watch how she holds her stomach, as if ever-so-slightly nauseated, while disparaging a suitor.

And Radford gives the film — shot partly in Venice — a golden glow and a real-world grubbiness. Beauty and ugliness mingle in this play, with the beauty of language ultimately triumphing.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or

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