Clearly, it is time for ramblings about The Merchant of Venice and Macbeth!
...I know, I know. But if I don't post about them now, I definitely won't do it later.
The 2004 Merchant of Venice was pretty much fantastic. It’s not my favorite play (though it is one of my favorites of the comedies), but for what it is, this was a very, very good film version. About several other films, I’ve said, “Wow, that movie was nothing like how I read the play, but it was really good”; I think The Merchant of Venice is the first one about which I can say it was done almost exactly the way I imagined it. At least, I highly approve of the interpretation of Antonio in the film, and I thought Jeremy Irons was perfect for the role. As soon as I saw that he was in the movie, I thought, he had better be Antonio. Fantastic.
First of all, Antonio and Bassanio are obviously lovers, or former lovers. The number of times they’re actually referred to as “lovers” of one another in the text is positively suspicious, as is Antonio’s willingness to risk all his property and his life for Bassanio’s sake, and his comment once he’s certain he’ll be killed that all he hopes is that Bassanio will come to see him before his death. And then, while Shylock is preparing to cut off his pound of flesh, this:
Give me your hand, Bassanio: fare you well!After which Bassanio declares that he would give up his wife as well as his own life in order to save Antonio: romantic effusions, to be sure. But what’s more is that even Portia seems to know it; she seems to actually be jealous of Antonio, because she knows Bassanio really does love him more than he loves her. (The movie, unfortunately, leaves her jealousy almost out of it -- but still.) So she devises a plan. First, in the guise of the “learned doctor,” she tricks Bassanio into giving away the ring he promised Portia he would never remove from his finger. How does she do it? By asking for it in payment for having saved Antonio’s life. Thus she proves that Bassanio values his relationship with Antonio more than his relationship with her; he is willing to break faith with her and give the ring away, but he would not have broken faith with Antonio. And then -- which is the real stroke of genius -- she gets Bassanio to swear on Antonio’s soul that he will never break faith with her again. Now his love for Antonio is bound up with his love for her; he cannot betray her without betraying Antonio. Which is something he will never do. FANTASTIC.
Commend me to your honourable wife:
Tell her the process of Antonio’s end;
Say how I loved you, speak me fair in death;
And, when the tale is told, bid her be judge
Whether Bassanio had not once a love.
But most fantastic of all was the way Jeremy Irons played Antonio, in that weary way of his, languid, adrift, drearily tormented, and Bassanio is affectionate but vaguely oblivious. They kiss once, and it's brief but it conveys plenty. Joseph Fiennes as Antonio was not quite as good as I wanted him to be, but he makes it just as obvious as Jeremy Irons does that these guys are not just friends. And that's something I was really not expecting to see in the film.
The other thing that I was glad to see, which was perhaps more to be expected, was that the film made Antonio genuinely a bigoted asshole who spits on Jews. I mean, he really has to be, for consistency, yet somehow I was expecting them to gloss over that, because Antonio is one of the “good guys.” Shylock accuses Antonio of spitting on him in the marketplace and cursing him and calling him a dog, and rather than denying it, Antonio says, “I am as like to call thee so again, to spit on thee again, to spurn thee too.” He takes a very superior attitude toward Shylock from the moment they meet, implying, even while he asks to borrow money, that the lending of money is a low practice; he addresses Shylock in the informal as often as not while they’re bargaining; he offers to be Shylock's enemy. All possible righteousness is on Shylock’s side, and really the only thing that makes Shylock the villain, rather than a revenge figure proper, is the fact that Antonio turns out to be such a good guy -- among his own people. But there are plenty of folks who are kind and loving and sincere with their friends, and are bigots nevertheless. I appreciated the fact that they allowed Antonio to be both a good man and a bad man, instead of trying to force him into one role or another.
I was also, I must say, very pleasantly surprised by Pacino’s Shylock. He really was very good. He, too, was permitted to be both a good and a bad man: he’s almost mad, really, and the way Pacino played him, you get the sense that a whole lifetime of being spat on and cursed by men like Antonio is what’s done it. Obviously, it’s possible to see this as an anti-Semitic play: in the end Shylock is forced to convert; his daughter marries a Christian; he loses the greater part of his money, and is only allowed to keep the last of it thanks to Antonio’s Christian mercy. But all the same, Shylock is presented as a man with very good reasons for being vengeful and cruel. All of his big speeches are about how, as a Jew, he’s never even been treated like a human being; he’s a well-developed character and a very eloquent one. And Pacino played all of it very, very well. So maybe I can finally forgive him for The Godfather III.
I should really talk about Portia, because Portia is awesome, but she just didn’t stand out all that much to me in the film. She was stunningly beautiful, and her acting was good, but she just didn’t really do anything in particular with the character. I think the role wanted someone a bit saucier.
...Okay, and then Macbeth, the McKellen version. (Also, I just realized I’ve been spelling his name wrong for years. McKellen. Bah.)
Firstly: McKellen was, predictably, really, really good.
Secondly: I think Macbeth must be really, really hard to play. Because even though McKellen was about as good as I think one could reasonably expect any man to be, he still wasn’t it, I didn’t think. There was still something not quite Macbeth about him.
I'm not even quite sure what I mean. He captured the character far, far better than Patrick Stewart did; that’s certain. At least to me, it seems pretty clear in the text that Macbeth wants the crown, and doesn’t mind Duncan having to die in order for him to get it, but has enough of a moral sense to be pretty horrified at the idea of actually killing Duncan, so that he basically comes unhinged the moment he performs the murder. Patrick Stewart seemed to try to play a Macbeth who had no real problem with killing people, so his increasing madness after the murder just looked weird. But with McKellen’s Macbeth it worked very well.
It was Judi Dench as Lady Macbeth, though, that made the biggest difference; she was so, so much better than the one in the 2010 movie -- I cannot even express how important this was. The 2010 version had this Lady Macbeth who was just evil and crazy like some kind of cackling Disney villain. Judi Dench played a much more human character: she’s ambitious and she’s trying to raise her husband's status by whatever means, and she’s trying to stifle the “effeminate” qualms she has about murder and just do what needs to be done, but ultimately she can’t live with it, or for that matter with what she’s done to her husband. She’s not evil. She was just very, very wrong.
So yes, the relationship between the Macbeths was excellent, as were their separate scenes of torment. As for the rest of the play, it... left something to be desired. First off, there were no props, almost nothing in the way of costuming, and just vacant darkness for a backdrop. Some of the actors were just wearing knit sweaters. I wouldn't even so much have minded that, if they’d all been brilliant in their parts, but McKellen and Dench were the only two I thought were really amazing. Macduff was pretty good, but still not as good as I wanted; Malcolm was certainly better than the 2010 one, but lacked something. Everyone else was just okay. The porter was still annoying, though at least they didn’t give him a zillion extra scenes.
And also, I have to say it: Ian McKellen was a goddamn attractive man in 1978. When my sister came home from work, I was like, “I’m not going to make you watch Macbeth, but I am going to show you shirtless Ian McKellen,” and she was like, “I really don't need to see -- wait what is this he looks really good.” I'd be lying if I said I hadn't hoped there would be more shirtless scenes.
Okay, I think I’m done talking about Shakespeare stuff now.