It's getting to the point where New Yorkers of Italian descent are not only more American than Italian, but more American than, well, a lot of other American cultures, though I am glad to see that Al Pacino is heading to Venice to embrace his Italian roots, even though I wouldn't exactly have pegged him as a very Shakespearean. Actually, now that I think about it, Pacino is perfect for the Shakespearean stage, because Shakespeare was pretty well know for writing plenty of material for scenery chewing, something that Pacino is no stranger to. Settle down kids, I don't mean that kind of bad overacting type of scenery chewing, because Al Pacino remains quite the actor, it's just that in recent, well, decades, he's been going ever so delightfully crazy, though less in a Shakespeare way and more in his own way. In advanced, I'm sorry for referencing the line coming up, but I just can't help but say that, going into this film, while I was aware that it featured a more restrained Pacino, I was still kind of waiting for him to whip out an under-barrel M203 grenade launcher and start blowing everyone away while saying, "Does saith good morrow to thy small companion!" "Where did Al Pacino get an under-barrel M203 grenade launcher in 1596 Venice", you ask? Hey, he's Al Pacino and he can do whatever he wants, and plus, it wouldn't be the first anachronism in a Shakespeare plays. Eh, whatever, Shakespeare still made some awesome plays to be made into some pretty good films, with this film not being one of the genuinely good films, which isn't to say that it's bad, because it is still quite enjoyable, though still not without its share of fatal faults.
As with many Shakespeare adaptations, this film stays faithful to the dry grace of the original text, so much so that it comes off as fairly slow, limping along with a kind of dryness that renders it often dull and almost aimless in its story flow, with the final being particularly bloated and even slow in pace, to the point of losing steam after a while. Still, here and there, when the film does take a shift in flow, the act is not always terribly organic, with changes in story focus tripping in an off-putting and uneven fashion that slows down the momentum of the impact for only a moment, though just long enough to land a blow to the resonance of the film. Of course, what might very well taint the film's impact the most is something that it is consistent in, and that is collapse so deep and so often into Shakespearean tropes, until after a while, it grows rather bland. The film makes little, if any attempt to punch harder or more uniquely than any other Shakespeare interpretation, and it is for that reason why the punch falling more limp than it does in other Shakespeare interpretations, for whether it be because I've grown jaded from my exposure to many different takes of Shakespeare or because the film's being overwhemingly and dully faithful to the source material is palpable whether you're a jaded Shakespeare adaptation viewer or not, the film just doesn't have enough bite to it to impress, and with its aimless slow spots and uneven points further dragging down impact, the film falls as rather bland. There's little about this Shakespeare piece that's worth remembering, and the final product emerges an underwhelming filler of one, and yet, there in lays the film's almost winning charm. What the film gets wrong is much too glaring for the film to stand as genuinely good, yet it just barely falls to underwhelming, because what it does do right it does with as much skill as you would expect from a mostly competently-crafted Shakespeare interpretation. Through all of the final product's faults, the consensus had it right when it deemed the film a respectable Shakespeare interpretation, and for quite a few reasons.
The film is a handsome one, with Benoît Delhomme's cinematography being consistently attractive in its lighting, with occasions in which it really emphasizes the environment in a stunning fashion, and that visual grace goes complimented by the audible grace that is Jocelyn Pook's score, which may be often conventional, yet remains fairly well-done and helps in seeling you on this world. What further sells you on the world is, well, the structure of the world, because although 1590s Venice surprisingly doesn't quite have enough sweep to it to really show off the production value, the film remains riddled with nifty production designs that may not immediately transport you to the time, but ease you into comfortably and buyably. For this, credit is largely due to Michael Radford's direction, which is quite decidedly spotty, yet has its moments where it really does sell you on the world, as well as, well, even its dialect. While this film is faithful to a fault to Joe Schmo's Shakespeare adaptations, where almost every dialogue-faithful Shakespeare screen adaptation glorifies Shakespeare's text to the point of really letting you know just how alien to our modern dialect Shakespeare's writing was, this adaptation goes handled with assurance by Radford so strong that there are many points in which he brings the dialect down to earth and has it genuinely connect. True, Shakespearean dialect is so very distinctive, so it should pretty much go without saying that there are still plenty of points in this film where the alienness of the dialogue really does bleed through and leave an impression, yet just as often, Radford leaves the dialogue to fit into both its own and our world with enough comfortable snugness to help in selling you on the environment, as well as leaves you to go reminded of just how snappy Shakespeare was when it came to dialogue. What further convinces you of this world are the performances, many of which are sparklingly charismatic, if not rather nuanced performances, and Al Pacino, in particular, steals the show by producing strong charm that, when broken up by some genuine subtle depth and layers, as well as the occasional piece of intense emoting, really absorbs a lot of humanity and engagement value from the Shylock character as a compelling tragic figure. Yes indeed, the film has quite a few strengths, yet the point is that it doesn't have enough punch to it to really milk the strengths, thus making for a very underwhelmingly been-there-done-that Shakespeare adaption, yet still one that's worth a watch, because its strengths still stand and are generally firmly effective in such a stance.
Overall, the film gets to be occasionally uneven in focus, when it's not as dryly limp and almost aimless-feeling as other Shakespeare adaptations, which isn't to say that slowness is the only thing that this film takes from other Shakespeare interpretations, as what we're left facing is a film that's conventional and overly faithful to the point of beingh brought down to the state of rather bland and underwhelming, though just barely, as the film is quite respectable in its competent handling of visual style and production designs, with mostly inspired direction and consistently inspired performances - particularly that of Al Pacino - particularly breathing life into this world and ultimately helping in leaving Michael Radford's take on "The Merchant of Venice" to stand as a consistently enjoyable film, even if its general blandness keeps it from transcending too far past simply enjoyable.
2.5/5 - Fair