Monday, May 23, 2016

The Merchant Of Venice (1973) DVD Review

Laurence Olivier is known for his earlier Shakespeare films – Hamlet, Richard III, Henry V – but it was his King Lear that first really impressed me, much more than his earlier work.  He gave an incredible performance as Lear. A decade before his King Lear, he took on the role of Shylock in Jonathan Miller’s production of The Merchant Of Venice, and now that production is available on DVD, thanks to Shout! Factory. And again, Olivier is incredibly impressive. Joining Laurence Olivier are Joan Plowright as Portia, Jeremy Brett as Bassanio, Michael Jayston as Gratiano, Anthony Nicholls as Antonio and Anna Carteret as Nerissa. The production seems to be set in the early 1900s.

Act I

The first scene takes place in a restaurant. Antonio is an older man, which gives more humor to his “O, fie” in response to the suggestion that he’s in love. Bassanio wears a somewhat loud suit jacket, and interestingly when he and Antonio first begin to speak privately, Antonio leans toward Bassanio, and Bassanio actually leans away – a wonderful little hint at how they both feel. It isn’t until Bassanio begins talking about his debts that he leans toward Antonio. Bassanio stands when he begins to talk of Portia, then sits closer to camera, so his speech is almost more to us (or to himself) than to Antonio, who in the background is more in darkness and looks downward. It isn’t until “O Antonio” that Antonio looks again toward Bassanio. It is an interesting way of presenting this dialogue.

Joan Plowright seems too old for Portia, but she delivers a good performance anyway, of course. Anna Carteret is also quite good as Nerissa, full of wit and playfulness. Because of this production’s more modern setting, Nerissa is able to show photographs of the suitors to Portia, and about these photographs they share a laugh. It’s a wonderful moment, and a delightful scene. I particularly like Joan Plowright’s delivery of the line when she first recalls Bassanio too fondly, then catches herself.

Laurence Olivier is, as I had hoped, excellent in the role of Shylock. Even the way he plays with the word “well” after “Antonio is to become bound” is wonderful. And his delivery of “I will be assured I may” is pointedly full of meaning. Having an older Antonio creates a wonderful connection between him and Shylock, two men of an age, and when we first see the two together, they are dressed in similar fashion, both with black top hats (Shylock’s over his yarmulke). It creates an intriguing image of similarities between the men.

Act II

Interestingly, as Antonio and Bassanio leave Skylock, Gratiano enters, calling “Signor Bassanio,” and the two engage in dialogue from the end of the second scene of Act II. (The rest of that scene is cut.) The film then continues to Act II Scene iii, with Jessica and Launcelot. Launcelot (played by Denis Lawson, who four years later would play Wedge in Star Wars) wears a bowler and a handlebar moustache, and speaks with a lower class accent.

Lorenzo (Malcolm Reid) is delightfully excited to receive the letter from Jessica.

Launcelot is funny when he echoes Shylock’s call to Jessica. When Jessica enters, she glances at Launcelot, but delivers her “Call you?” to Shylock, thus missing a comedic opportunity. But after Launcelot lets slip about the “masque,” he delivers the rest of the speech quickly, as if hoping to cover up that slip, which is a nice, funny moment. And Shylock’s reaction is great.

The film then goes back to the first scene of Act II, for Portia’s meeting with the first suitor, and it leads directly to Scene vii, when he chooses from among the caskets (so we lose Scene vi entirely). The caskets are on a turning platform, so that the Prince of Morocco is able to stand still, while Nerissa turns the platform so that he can look at each casket. An interesting choice. Morocco turns in a humorous and appropriately goofy performance. I particularly love the moment when he approaches Portia, asking what would happen if he stopped and chose the silver one, like he’s hoping for some hint from her. I’m glad to see the comedic moments early on in this production, because without them, the fifth act can’t work at all.

Scene viii is cut, and the film goes right to Scene ix, with the second suitor, the Prince of Arragon. In this production, he is an elderly man, which amuses Nerissa. There’s a funny moment when he delivers a speech, and Portia and Nerissa sip tea in the deep background, clearly not caring to give ear to any speech this old man might give. He does ask Portia to read the inscription on the silver casket, unlike in the play, where he reads it himself. There is some funny, playful business with sugar cubes. And because he’s old, he nearly inserts the key in the lead casket rather than his chosen silver, but for Nerissa quickly turning the platform. This entire scene is wonderful, and you actually feel for the old guy at the end when he asks honestly, even a bit sadly, “Did I deserve no more than a fool’s head?”


At the beginning of Act III, Salarino is reading a newspaper, which prompts Salanio’s first line, “Now, what news on the Rialto?” But he holds a letter, and so perhaps has more news than Salarino. Salarino then hands Salanio the paper on “my gossip report.” You really feel for Shylock when he enters, upset about Jessica’s flight, particularly because of the way Salarino and Salanio speak to him, without a trace of pity or kindness. It makes his anger much more understandable. And it is only then that Shylock decides to call in the forfeit of Antonio’s bond, an excellent moment. We can see it all on Laurence Olivier’s face, as he turns his pain and anger toward Antonio. What a great performance. And that’s before he delivers that famous speech (“Hath not a Jew eyes…”). His scene with Tubal is likewise excellent.

The third scene begins with Portia and Bassanio having just returned from a pleasant horseback ride, showing that she has already kept him from making his choice of caskets for a while. They move inside then for him to choose. Interestingly, Portia exits after she says “thou that mak’st the fray,” and two women enter to sing the song. This is played for humor, as they get quite close to Bassanio and then sing rather loudly. Not only does the song give away the correct choice through its rhyme, but the women singing it position themselves next to the lead casket. This production makes it quite clear that Portia is cheating.

Scene iv takes place outside. When Portia says she and Nerissa will abide in a monastery until their husbands return, Nerissa reacts negatively, showing clearly she’s not yet been made privy to Portia’s plan – a nice touch.

Scene v is cut.

Act IV

Antonio and his friends enter the empty, and somewhat dark, courtroom before the Duke enters. Then when Shylock enters, Shylock and Antonio sit opposite each other at a table. I love Laurence Olivier’s delivery of “No, none that thou hast wit enough to make.” Both Nerissa and Portia do a good job disguised as men. Gratiano is behind Nerissa and Portia when he says, about Nerissa, “I would she were in heaven, so she could/Entreat some power to change this currish Jew.” So when Nerissa says “’Tis well you offer it behind her back,” he is literally behind her back. This scene is done so well, and a moment is allowed after Shylock’s exit, where we see other characters’ reactions. Particularly intriguing is Portia’s, as she seems to have sympathy and perhaps even a bit of regret. And then I love that Portia slaps Bassanio on the shoulder when she says, “I pray you, know me when we meet again.” Is she upset that he didn’t recognize her? Interesting.

Act V

The beginning of the fifth act, with Lorenzo and Jessica, is also done really well. It is a sweet, touching and meaningful scene. I love how Lorenzo reacts when Jessica doesn’t immediately follow his wish to go inside. The affection and concern he feels for her is apparent. Though Portia and Nerissa left home via a coach, they oddly return on foot, with Nerissa carrying all the bags. That’s one bit of humor that falls flat. Interestingly, after the final line of the play, Jessica remains, studying the paper whereby her father leaves his possessions to her and Lorenzo. This is a surprising and touching moment.

This production of The Merchant Of Venice was directed for television by John Sichel. It is 128 minutes. The DVD contains no special features.

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