A Midsummer Night's Dream (1999)
Directed by Michael Hoffman
Cast: Kevin Kline, Stanley Tucci, Calista Flockhart, Christian Bale, Rupert Everett, Michelle Pfeiffer, Anna Friel, Dominic West, David Strathairn, Sophie Marceau, Sam Rockwell.
1999 121 minutes
Rated: (for brief nudity).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, May 15, 1999.
"Hamlet," "Othello," "Romeo & Juliet," "Much Ado About Nothing." In the past several years a big screen adaptation of one of William Shakespeare's plays has been released at least every couple months, and with the huge success of Oscar-winner "Shakespeare in Love," many more adaptations are in the works, and the first out the gate is one of his lighter, fluffier comedies, the self-proclaimed "William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream," which, unfortunately, is not nearly as magical as the lovely title implies.
The setting of this latest adaptation, directed by Michael Hoffman, has been transported from 17th-century England to 19th-century Tuscany, but strangely enough, the Elizabethan dialogue remains (although, in hindsight, this isn't as ridiculous a thought as 1996's "Romeo & Juliet," with Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes reciting Shakespeare amidst an urban 1990s setting). The fantastical story goes like this: Helena (Calista Flockhart), a disspirited young woman who is head-over-heels in love with Demetrius (Christian Bales), the planned suitor of the beautiful Hermia (Anna Friel), who herself is in love with Lysander (Dominic West), follows each of them into the forest one midsummer's night on her bicycle (a new invention), determined to steal Demetrius' heart. Things don't go quite as planned, however, when they unwittingly step into the forest of the fairies, headed by Queen Titania (Michelle Pfeiffer) and King Oberon (Rupert Everett). Oberon seeks the aid of his horned assistant, Puck (Stanley Tucci), to collect a few red flowers whose juices have the power to turn each person who comes physically into contact with it to fall in love with the first person they see upon waking. So as both Demetrius and Lysander are put under the spell, both of which set their sights on Helena, who simply believes they are playing a cruel trick on her, an overacting troupe member who has come into the forest to practice his latest play finds himself turned into a donkey when he slips on a magic hat, and lusted after by Titania, who has also fallen under the flower's potion.
"William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream" falls under one of the major shortcomings of all of Shakespeare's works, which is that he wrote tons and tons of carefully planned and intricate dialogue, but always failed at developing his characters, who remained at a distance from the material and were written in a general and vague manner. Aside from perhaps his 'Romeo & Juliet," none of his many plays I have read have gotten me to care even remotely about any of the characters, or even the story. To me, the Elizabethan dialogue always felt like a mere gimmick to be flashy, and this film version of "Midsummer" is no different. Not at any time during the film did I ever really feel willing to get involved in what was happening on-screen, and the romantic plights of the characters are so thinly written that it is impossible to care about them.
If anything, "A Midsummer Night's Dream" is a lighthearted fantasy, and with such a bewitching title, those exact sequences set in the forest were the most dull and lifeless, without even a hint of enchantment. Much of the problem goes to the major technical problems, including surprisingly atrocious cinematography by Oliver Stapleton, who overlights ever night scene to such an extent that it often was confusing to whether it had changed to the daytime or not. The last time I was out in the woods during the middle of the night, I couldn't see a thing, but in this movie, there seems to be a constant bright sun shining down on everyone, despite the dark skies. The qualms don't stop there, as the production design by Luciana Arrighi is thoroughly artificial and distracting, never once looking like anything but an extravagant movie set in the confines of a large studio. In one scene, Puck rides into view on a giant turtle that is so fake-looking and obviously mechanical that I felt as if I was watching a movie from the '60s or '70s. All of these problems within the main section of the film, mixed in with the overall amateurish performances, had me actually longing, instead, for the infinitely superior 1982 Woody Allen farce, "A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy," which was funny, whimsical, and involving, three things this current film is sorely lacking.
Acting-wise, the performances are all over the map. Faring best is Calista Flockhart (vanquishing her "Ally McBeal" character), who seems to understand the difficult dialogue so well that each word that comes out of her mouth is instantly accessible to understand. Flockhart's Helena is also the only character I gave one iota about, as she is a frustrated and unhappy woman who feels like she belongs to Demetrius, even though he doesn't care about her. Kevin Kline is sometimes winning, and at other times downright annoying, as the dim-witted Bottom. Finally, Stanley Tucci makes somewhat of an impression and is well-cast as the sprightly Puck, but what is his exact purpose in the movie other than to narrate the conclusion?
On the opposite side of the spectrum is Michelle Pfeiffer's dismal performance as Titania. Pfeiffer is a fine actress, but Shakespearean she's not, as she recites her lines without any thought, energy, or feeling. In a recent interview, Pfeiffer mentioned how she didn't care for Shakespeare, and since she obviously doesn't know how to hold her own against her fellow thespian, it leaves you wondering just why she took this role in the first place. Rupert Everett, an exciting actor so wonderful in "My Best Friend's Wedding" is given nothing to do here but show off his body, and without any motivation or purpose (aside from setting the whole story into motion), his fairy character comes off as more of an afterthought. And Christian Bale has to be the most largely sought-after bore in the history of film. I don't know; maybe Helena was having a slight bout of insomnia and though that going out with him would cure her, er, problem.
The various romantic couplings during the long midsummer night leads not to an enjoyable conclusion (although it has a false one), but unwisely goes on for another twenty minutes with Bottom and company throwing a play of "Pyrimus and Thisby." What is supposed to be a charming, humorous sequence is actually a situation we've seen so many times before that it is not funny, only juvenile. Regardless of my many, many criticisms, I did not hate "William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream." I hasten to add I didn't like hardly any of it at all, but it wasn't dispicable in the way that "Armageddon" or the recent "The Mummy" are. Director Michael Hoffman has made a respectable attempt at turning yet another Shakespeare play into a treasured motion picture, but ultimately fails to bring any sort of magic to the story or situations. If you hadn't already realized, "magic" was the one thing this movie desperately needed.
©1999 by Dustin Putman