In the LRB, Frank Kermode responds to Michael Radford's film of The Merchant of Venice, starring Pacino as Shylock:
This movie version of the play will just about do. It has most of the virtues and most of the faults endemic to such ventures, but it exposes the latter less grossly than some. As Shylock Pacino succeeds as any good, experienced actor should, and Jeremy Irons is appallingly sad as Antonio, just as he promises to be in the opening line of the play. He cannot understand why he is so sad but the film all too insistently offers a complete explanation. Joseph Fiennes as Bassanio shows us why the Christians in this play are, on the whole, such an unlikeable lot. Lynn Collins as Portia looks as good as she ought to, and redeems some tiresome moments in the early scenes by being startlingly good and grave in the trial scene. Since the piece is set in Venice there is a lot of photography, and some of the results are indeed beautiful. The movie runs for 131 minutes and feels longer, partly no doubt because quite often nothing strictly relevant is actually happening – and certainly not because it includes boring quantities of Shakespeare’s text. …
Shylock is despised and hated but even when most intransigent not credible as a monster, and to give Pacino his due, he plays him as a human being, increasingly vicious as his wrongs accumulate, totally lacking the sentiment of mercy, but always true to his culture and its eloquent exponent. On the other side we notice that no one, not even Jessica, thinks that he has been unfairly treated. Like a great many other Jews of the period he is forced to convert, but this is treated as a punishment, not an occasion for rejoicing, despite the prevalent belief that the Jews must be converted before there could be a second coming. This gentile callousness is as hard to condone as the inherited monstrosities of their anti-semitic mythology.
Prejudice is powerful on both sides, but the Christians are shown to have God on their side when Antonio’s venture succeeds and the ships, mysteriously saved, come in loaded, while Shylock, for seeking an illegal form of interest, is ruined. Yet he is the greater performer, his part so well written that even the cinema cannot seriously reduce or explain it. What neither the cinema nor the stage explains is why the play is so shadowed by unease and unhappiness, even though all seems to go right: the villain is punished and the dissolute boy gets the rich girl and they all meet again at Belmont – such a blissful place, especially in the movie – only to celebrate their happiness by discussing infidelity and experiencing, like the play itself, a nameless sadness under the inaudible harmonies of the stars.