In many respects, this is Shakespeare's most affecting story, and the one least indebted to the clichés of the Jacobin drama that had come before. Just in case you had mono the month that the you were supposed to write that essay comparing and contrasting Merchant of Venice with Harry Potter and the Usurious Hebrews, here's the basic plot: Antonio (Jeremy Irons) is a merchant who lives, not surprisingly, in Venice. At the start of the play, all of his fortunes are literally at sea, leaving him in a state of worry which is exacerbated by his inability to find meaning in life.
His young friend Bassanio (Joseph Fiennes) is chock-full of meaning, in that he's meaning to get in on some of the hot booty (in both senses of the term) available at the keep of Portia (Lynn Collins), a marriageable young woman whose vast fortune will release Bassanio from his enormous debts.
Bassanio, though, in classic Happy Days style, needs to borrow enough money to convince Portia that he's a worthy suitor so he can marry her and get debt-free in only 30 days. Thus, he comes to Antonio for a loan, but Antonio, being tapped out, sends Bassanio to Shylock (Al Pacino), a Jewish moneylender.
This is where the play gets interesting. Shakespeare was well aware of the injustices committed upon Jews in his days, but at the same time, he can't escape the anti-Semitism endemic to the mind-set of his age. Shylock is thus a tremendously complex character: He burns with rage against the hateful Christians who mock him and spit in his face when he walks the street, and this creates great sympathy for him, but in the end, the hypocrisy and evil of the Christians overwhelms him, and he becomes deeply unsympathetic in his obsession with revenge.
He enacts this through the only power he has, that of money and the courts. Shylock inserts a wicked clause in Bassanio's loan contract: If Bassanio fails to pay on time, then Shylock may take a pound of Antonio's flesh.
Of course, it's Shakespeare, so things come down to a tense finale wherein girls dress as boys and much ado is made about love's labours measuring their measures in some kind of comedy of errors.
While the story takes care of itself, care has to be had in handling it, because it turns readily from a condemnation of anti-Semitism into a brutally anti-Semitic play. The end is really hard to justify, and I think that director Michael Radford has to be given credit for not cleaning it up. With a little historical distance, it stands more as testament to the narrow-mindedness of the Elizabethans (and Shakespeare himself, though he was perhaps the broadest-minded man to ever have lived) than as an outright expression of bigotry. However, by not sugar-coating it, politically correcting it or dumbing it down, Radford leaves the task of how to take it up to the audience, which is an aesthetically courageous move in the age of faux-offense at half-time nipple shows.
The real treasure of this production, though, is the production itself. Instead of taking the Julie Taymor path of wild sartorial and architectural embellishment (which worked so well in her Titus, probably one of the best film adaptations of Shakespeare that will ever be made), Radford chose to give as strong and faithful a period look to the piece as possible, which makes sense here, since he's trying to make the most salient element Shakespeare's artistry, and not his own.
Of course, it takes considerable artistry to do this, and the beautiful art direction and incredibly informative cinematography go a long way towards achieving this. Each shot, instead of becoming enamored of the considerable charms of the actors, costumes and sets, is designed with precise economy to present necessary story elements. It's the kind of camera work that doesn't get enough attention in the spectacle-oriented world of Oscars and effects, but it's the true heart of the art of lens-work.
All this would be nothing without fine performances, and Merchant has them in spades. Jeremy Irons does his standard Jeremy Irons, which works fine here, and Joseph Fiennes combines the carelessness of youth with a real depth of feeling to create a complex, and not entirely likeable, Bassanio. The real star, though, is Al Pacino, an actor who is at once one of the best and worst currently working in film.
Because of his love of stagey gestures and emotions, Pacino has been known to chew so far through the scenery that he wound up in the molten center of the Earth. Here, though, his increasingly unnatural style works perfectly. What Pacino has done is to make Shylock seem alien, which is fitting considering that he's an official outsider, but at the same time sympathetic, and at the same time, obsessed to the point of evil. While the performance doesn't condone the evil, it makes it comprehensible, and I think that's key in presenting a character as multi-layered and inherently controversial as Shylock.