The basic plot of Merchant revolves around anti-Semitism which our "hero" practices. That is fun stuff there. Antonio (Jeremy Irons) has a history of making acting like Shylock (Al Pacino), a Jew, doesn't exist or when he does, the existence is lower than a dog. Antonio has a friend, who Jeremy Irons makes clear he wants more than friendship, who needs to borrow money so he can marry the very attractive Portia (Lynn Collins). Problem is Banquo (Joseph Fiennes), Antonio's friend, has no money and no credit. He goes to borrow from Antonio who has all of his money invested in shipping so is, in turn, broke. They go to Shylock, who makes a business of lending money at interest, something that the Christian Church has deemed as unchristian. Shylock has been turned away in all of his advances of friendship to Antonio, so he agrees to but for a strange price. If Antonio can't return the money as agreed to in the terms, he is to give Shylock a pound of flesh. If this plot is not convoluted enough, Shylock has a daughter who not only leaves him for a Christian, but leaves with some of his money. I'm not sure what upset Shylock more -- the losing of the daughter or the losing of money.
This last line gives you an idea of the problems this play has. Does Shakespeare, that paragon of us, have anti-Semitic feelings?
Anti-Semitism it's central theme. It doesn't shy away from it in the characters. Shylock often gets to eloquently respond ("Prick us do we not bleed"). However, the ending doesn't sit right. It's an underserved punishment based on prejudice.
Now to get to the movie. Irons and Pacino do great work here. Irons, who wears sadness the way I wear a shirt, is brilliant as a man who has lost everything financially and the one the thing he truly loves, Banquo, loves another. Pacino makes a wonderful Shylock even though I could do without the Jewish accent. His aforementioned speech was one of the more exciting speeches of Shakespeare in film. Fiennes is solid but nothing more. The true jewel here is Lynn Collins. She captures every mood of Portia so wonderfully that it seems effortless (which is the essence of great acting isn't it). She is believable when all aflutter when Banquo shows up, wonderful portraying a young male when Portia in disguise cross examines Shylock, and totally scorned when Banquo loses a gift she gave. Having mostly small roles in small comedies, she is one to watch closely.
Well, what about the film. The movie, like the play, totally gripped me up until the end. I had forgotten how the play ended. And if you don't think Shakespeare wouldn't take a pound of flesh from a main character then watch Titus. The problem with the play is the punishment of one of the characters. It is cruel and unusual. Plus, the people that are our heroes escape freely from their sins. Like I said, it's a problem play.