I had gotten the Merchant of Venice DVD from Netflix intending to watch it before Seanie and I went to Ashland, but school and other distractions kept us from viewing it until last night. (Note to self: Need to get off your lazy butt and write up your Ashland trip. Don't forget!) The other lead roles were filled Joseph Fiennes (never, ever watch the Luther movie he starred in, it was AWFUL), Jeremy Irons (SCAR!!!) and Lynn Collins (I know nothing about her). The most random and unexpected actor was Mackenzie Crook, playing a Launcelot whose comedic role was cut to nearly nothing. What can I say? I only know the guy as a pirate with a fork stuck in his eye.
I know that The Merchant of Venice is a problematic story. There are two major plots - the action in Venice, where a man demands another man's flesh in his quest for revenge, and the comedy of a woman's trials under a constant flood of unwanted suitors. It's really hard to balance both storylines equally, so the mood of one will dominate. In this film, the tragedy of Shylock's life becomes the major story, and some of the play's funniest bits (Launcelot's conscious monologue) are cut so that history about Jewish prosecution in Europe can be added. The antisemitism of the play is toned down and Shylock's bitterness is explained in little added scenes.
On his head, Shylock frequently wears a red hat to mark himself out as a Jew. (Apparently, this was a custom in Venice at the time. I had no idea.) As the movie opens, Shylock watches fellow Jews being tormented by zealous Christian Venetians. Scattered in this crowd scene and others are the occasional red hat, marking out his fellow Jews. After Shylock's forced conversion to Christianity, he no longer wears the hat, and at the close of the movie there's this really poignant scene where he stands outside his old synagogue, watching everyone go in to the evening service, unable to join. It's a strong reminder why Shylock's punishment is so brutal - in the course of the play not only does he lose his daughter, his money, and his livelihood, but he also loses his community. He is completely and totally alone. Harsh.