William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream

William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream
Director: Michael Hoffman
Screenplay: Michael Hoffman (based on the play by William Shakespeare)
Stars: Kevin Kline (Bottom), Michelle Pfeiffer (Titania), Rupert Everett (Oberon), Stanley Tucci (Puck), Calista Flockhart (Helena), Anna Friel(Hermia), Dominic West (Lysander), Christian Bale (Demetrius), David Strathairn (Theseus), Sophie Marceau (Hippolyta)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Year of Release: 1999
Country: USA

In saying, "Lord, what fools these mortals be," Puck (Stanley Tucci), theengagingly meddlesome sprite in "William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night'sDream," effectively summarizes that play's theme, as well as the major themein just about all of Shakespeare's best work. Whether it be "Hamlet" or"Macbeth" or "Romeo and Juliet," somehow Shakespeare always pointed out howfoolish people are. But, of course, that foolishness is what makes hischaracters so interesting, and what gives his plays such wonderful humandepth. Foolish or not, as Shakespeare wrote in "Hamlet," "What a piece ofwork is man."

In the new screen version of "A Midsummer Night's Dream," writer/directorMichael Hoffman ("Restoration") uses grand set design, digital effects, anda cast of popular American, British, and French actors to bring to life oneof Shakespeare's most innovative and amusing comedies--an early sexual farceset in a mystical forest. With people falling in and out of love with eachother at the drop of a magic flower, "A Midsummer Night's Dream" is a light,breezy affair, dappling in the inherent silliness and chance of romanticinfatuation. Hoffman updates the story from ancient Greece to Tuscany in thelate 19th century, where the bustle was going out and the bicycle was comingin.

The majority of the story is about how four unwitting mortals get caught inthe passionate battle between Oberon, the Fairy King (Rupert Everett) andTitania, the Fairy Queen (Michelle Pfeiffer). The four mortals are Helena(Calista Flockhart), Hermia (Anna Friel), Lysander (Dominic West), andDemetrius (Christian Bale). Hermia is being forced to marry Demetrius, eventhough she is in love with Lysander. Helena, meanwhile, is deeply in lovewith Demetrius, even though he doesn't give her the time of day. So, by thetime Oberon and Puck are done dropping love potions on their eyelids to makethem fall in love with the first person they see, Demetrius and Lysander areboth in love with Helena, and Hermia is left wondering what happened.

Also caught up in the farce is Bottom the Weaver (Kevin Kline), agood-hearted but miserable man who dreams of being a great actor. When heand his four worker friends go into the forest to practice a play, Puckgives Bottom donkey ears and Titania, under the spell of Oberon's magicpotion, ends up falling in love with him. The scenes that ensue, with thebeautiful, scantily clad Pfeiffer fawning over Kline and his ridiculousdonkey ears, are both funny and a bit sad. While Bottom has often beenportrayed as a randy, obnoxious sort, Kline gives him depth and sadness in awonderfully comic performance. We truly feel for Bottom when, whiledisplaying his acting prowess on the town square, he is humiliated when acouple of kids dump wine all over his head, completely deflating hisself-confidence and acting prowess.

Hoffman puts together a number of amusing set pieces, even though the movieitself takes a while to get up to speed. He maintains the majority ofShakespeare's beautiful language, and stays faithful to the play'sstoryline. One of the best scenes is the play-within-a-play, where Bottomand Co. portray "The Most Lamentable Comedy, the Cruel Death of Pyramus andThisbe," and despite everything going wrong, they manage to end in triumph.The scene is both comical slapstick and a sentimental ode to Bottom and hisfriends' desire to rise above their lowly station in life.

The performances are good all around, with Kline being the real standout.Stanley Tucci does a fine job of making Puck both amusingly mischievous andsomewhat dark, and he avoids the kind of annoyance into which his part cansometimes sink (see Mickey Rooney in the 1935 film version). Rupert Everettis also quite excellent; looking as relaxed reciting Shakespearean poetry ashe does lounging on the forest floor bare-chested, he gives Oberon abrooding sensibility that goes a long way in explaining his deviousmeddling. Calista Flockhart ("Ally McBeal" herself) acts a bit too spacey attimes, but she still makes Helena into an effectively wounded, love-starveddreamer.

The set design by Luciana Arrighi ("Sense and Sensibility") and thecinematography by Oliver Stapleton (who worked with Hoffman on "Restoration"and "One Fine Day") are both outstanding, and they do an excellent job ofcreating the kind of mystical aura where we can believe in fairies, nymphs,and other woodland sprites. Hoffman successfully balances the humor and thesentiment, while also giving the film a strong sexual overtone that neverbecomes overbearing (he has just the right amount of well-placed nudity).While it may not be among the best of the cinematic adaptations ofShakespeare, and it has its moments of unevenness, this "Midsummer Night'sDream" is worth staying up for.

©1999 James Kendrick

Overall Rating: (3)

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