Dir. MichaelRadford. UK-It. 2004. 125mins.

Despite beingone of Shakespeare's best known plays, The Merchant Of Venice has seenlittle in the way of film adaptation during the past 50 years or so. While TVhas given us plenty of Shylocks to feast our eyes upon, cinema has offered nocompetition, in part due to the work's blunt anti-semitic tone

Despite a visualintroduction to better motivate Shylock's later conduct and some manipulationand abbreviation to give the piece a clearer, more cinematic nature, MichaelRadford's handsomely mounted production takes a respectful approach to theBard.

A name cast,headed by the likes of Al Pacino, Jeremy Irons and Joseph Fiennes and lavishpresentation should ensure that Radford's film will be a shoo-in on the arthousecircuit, at which it is obviously targeted.

However, itspotential to crossover is more unlikely due to the nature of the material.While The Merchant Of Venice can be regarded as a metaphor for racism atany time or place in history, it is doubtful whether this meaning will beapplied to such a literal adaptation. A slot at Toronto follows its Out OfCompetition premiere at Venice.

Venetiannobleman Bassanio (Fiennes), desperately in need of money to court thebeauteous Portia (Lyn Collins), appeals for funds to his friend, the richmerchant Antonio (Jeremy Irons). He in turn borrows from the despised Jewishusurer, Shylock (Al Pacino), signing a bond that entitles the lender to take apound of his flesh if he cannot come up with the payment in due time.

When all ofAntonio's ships are sunk at sea and he fails to return the loan, Shylockdemands his pound of flesh. The honour of Venetian justice and the city'strading reputation are both jeopardised unless the agreement is kept to.

It is only dueto Portia, who has married Bassanio in the meantime, that Shylock ends up notonly without money and his enemy's flesh, but also his daughter (Robinson), whoin the meantime has eloped and married another Venetian nobleman.

To Radford'scredit he defuses much of the static, declamatory stances associated with stageadaptations, almost, if not quite, transforming the original text into fluent,everyday dialogue. In doing so he goes a long way to underlining the reasonswhy Shylock makes his inhuman insistence, before the Doge's court, to be paidin Christian flesh rather than Christian money.

Pacino'sperformance as Shylock is masterful, presenting a man so profoundly bereaved,insulted and discriminated against that his burning hatred and need for revengeare perfectly understandable, if not acceptable.

But none of thecombined efforts of Radford, Irons and Fiennes, manages to instil interest inthe basically weak characters of Antonio and Bassanio, including thetransparent suggestion of a homosexual relationship between them.

The comic parts,which mostly relate to the suitors trying to win the hand of Portia, do notfare any better. That said, Lynn Collins shines through as Portia herself,possibly because she gets to deliver more lines and has a more enticing textthan other cast members.

Technicalcredits are top notch, including spectacular wide screen images and stunningproduction design and costumes.

Prod cos: Avenue Pictures, Navidi-Wilde Prods, Spice Factory Prods, Movision Ent, ArclightFilms, UK Film Council, Film Fund Luxembourg, Delux Prods, Immagine e Cinema,Dania Film, Istituto Luce
Int'l sales: Arclight Films International
Exec prods: Manfred Wilde, Michael Hammer, Peter James, James Simpson, AlexMarshall, Robert Jones
Prods: Cary Brokaw, Barry Navidi, Jason Piettte,Michael Lionello Cowen
Michael Radfordfrom the play by William Shakespeare
Benoit Delhomme
Lucia Zuchetti
Prod des:
Bruno Rubeo
Jocelyn Pook
Main cast:
Al Pacino,Jeremy Irons, Joseph Fiennes, Lyn Collins, Zuleikha Robinson, Kris Marshall,Heather Goldenhersh, Charlie Fox, John Sessions, Allan Corduner, Anton Rogers