Saturday, November 2, 2013

Movie Reviews: Recent Shakespeareances

Here's a couple of Shakespeare movies we happened to see recently.

The Merchant of Venice (2004) directed by Michael Radford

The movie begins with some information about the treatment of Jews in Elizabethan-era Venice. They live in a walled-off ghetto. They have to wear red hats when they go outside the ghetto. They can't get regular jobs so they wind up being money lenders, only charging interest on loans is considered usury so they have to be crafty in how they are paid back. With this information, I expected a much more sympathetic portrayal of the main villain, Shylock. Al Pacino plays Shylock. Viewers might expect a larger-than-life, scenery-chewing performance. Pacino's performance is nicely toned-down, only exploding occasionally for effect. It was probably the best thing about the movie. Seeing Pacino in this role is what drew me to to the film.

The plot is faithful, at least as I remember it from reading the play in high school. Basino has fallen in love with Portia but doesn't have enough money to impress her (or so he thinks). He borrows money from Shylock on his older friend Antonio's credit. Shylock loans 3000 ducats for three months. If Antonio forfeits, Shylock may take a pound of flesh from Antonio's body. Antonio is pretty sure his ships that have gone trading (he is the merchant from the title) will be back long before three months with the money to pay back.

Basino goes off to woo Portia. Portia is an orphan and her wealthy father left specific instructions on who should be her husband. The successful suitor has to chose from three caskets which one has her image in it. The caskets are gold, silver, and lead. Some other suitors fail but Basino wins by guessing it's in the lead casket. There's a marriage and much rejoicing.

Meanwhile, Antonio's ships all fail to return and Shylock is ready to get his revenge (what he calls justice) by legally killing Antonio. Antonio had been both dismissive and abusive of Shylock for years because of his Jewish faith, so Shylock demands recompense. A big court scene finishes that story-line where Shylock argues for justice over mercy and virtually the rest of the cast argue for mercy, even when Basino returns with 6000 of Portia's ducats as repayment. Things end poorly for Shylock.

The production values are quite high and the setting seems like authentic 1600s Venice. Overall the performances are good and Pacino does stand out for his atypical performance. The movie definitely gave a more sympathetic portrayal of Shylock without revising the ending. I do have a few reservations about it (see the advisory below).

Parental Advisory--in addition to the religious tensions in the film, there's an awful lot of topless women. None of the major characters are topless but often there are topless (presumably) prostitutes in the back of street scenes for no apparent reason. One scene is set in a brothel with some heavy petting going on and more topless women. Also the movie suggests that there is some homosexual attraction or relationship between Basino and Antonio, though the most graphic it gets is a kiss on the mouth between the two. I don't remember anything about that in high school and it seems an odd interpretation since they didn't do anything with it (e.g. they could have portrayed Antonio as a hypocrite for despising the Jew Shylock while he also is part of an unpopular minority). This movie is best for older teens.

Love's Labour's Lost (2000) directed by Kenneth Branagh

I have not read this play or seen a production aside from this movie, but it definitely follows the wacky antics in plays like Much Ado About Nothing. The King of Navarre and three friends swear a public oath to study philosophy and other esoteric subjects while foreswearing women for three years. Naturally they do this just before the French princess comes to visit with three of her lady friends who all have had past associations with the King's three friends. A lot of comedy ensues as the men try to stay with their vows but also woo their women in secret.

The twist here is the setting is a 1930s musical. In fact, the story is set in the 1930s, so World War II is looming on the horizon for all the characters. And what I presume is the role of the chorus is taken over cleverly by short black-and-white newsreels filling in the back story (much like the TV reporter at the beginning of Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet). The songs are classic jazz-era tunes from Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, the Gershwins, etc. The singing and dancing are good but not stellar (except for a fabulous "I Get a Kick Out of You" by Timothy Spall's Don Armado). The cast gives fine performances, hitting the right blend of serious and silly and sensual.

The story is pretty light but very enjoyable and fits really well with a classic Hollywood musical treatment.

Parental advisory: There is one sensual dance scene with no nudity but a lot of touching. Otherwise the romantic intrigues are fairly benign.

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