Shakespeare's most cotroversial play, set in 16th century Venice, about the businessman Antonio, who goes in debt to a vindictive moneylender named Shylock. When Antonio defaults, Shylock is determined to get his literal "pound of flesh", and Antonio's friends band together to defend him with a wacky scheme of gender bending and legal maneuvers. There is also a subplot of Portia's suitors and the bizarre test they must pass to get her. It is controversial because of the anti-Semitic stereotypes with regard to Shylock. But while Shakespeare shared the ethnic prejudices of his time, he also transcended them--- his Shylock is mean but clearly human; and for all their soapboxing about forgiveness, in the end it seems it's the Christians who are the most vindictive. Themes include the nature of bigotry and prejudice; law, justice and the danger of legalism, which has its own kind of karma; the undervalued talents of women; loyalty and duty to one's friends.
For those who like their Shakespeare straight and uncluttered, this version will not be a favorite. It includes some weird music and dramatic embellishments which I happened to like but which The Bard probably did not intend, and some may find sentimental or smarmy. As director Michael Radford says in the commentary, it's as much a Radford as a Shakespeare production. But for an amateur like me this is an excellent introduction to the basic plot and characters, which are too complex and confusing in print. The Shakespearologists are right that Bill S. was meant to be seen and not just read.
Versatile Al Pacino does a kick ass Shylock, as does Jeremy Irons for Antonio. Unfortunately both sometimes fail to speak up and their lines are then barely audible, so it may help to use the caption option on the DVD or follow along with a printed copy. Lynn Collins is awesome as Portia, especially when playing the male lawyer, and performs just as well as any high-class Brit of the royal theaters, but she is actually from Texas of all places.
Most famous lines: Shylock's defense "Hath not a Jew eyes, hands, senses, organs, dimensions, passions," delivered brilliantly by Pacino, and "the quality of mercy is not strained". Excellent closing theme, a groovy Renaissance- style ballad actually written for the film. Rated R (though it's got much youth appeal it may not suitable for those under 16 due to the topless Venetian hookers, another creative feature not in the original. )