A Midsummer Night's Dream (1999)

reviewed by
Sean Townsend


STARRING: Kevin Kline, Michelle Pfeiffer, Rupert Everett, Stanley Tucci, Calista Flockhart, Christian Bale, Anna Friel, David Strathairn, Sophie Marceau, Dominic West DIRECTOR: Michael Hoffman WRITTEN BY: Michael Hoffman

William Shakespeare has been dead for almost 400 years now, but his plays are truly immortal as a source of entertainment-- not to mention trepidation for young English students. His colleague Ben Jonson (in one of whose plays Shakespeare acted) wrote, "He is not of an age, but for all time." The recent trend for film directors has been to put that theory to the test by setting the Bard's tales in entirely different historical eras, but leaving the dialogue intact. In 1996, Australian director Baz Luhrmann transplanted Romeo and Juliet into modern-day Verona Beach, complete with guns, gangs, and Leo. This year, Michael Hoffman (One Fine Day, Restoration) takes Shakespeare's early comedy, changes the milieu from ancient Greece to 19th-century Tuscany, and throws in a few bicycles for good measure. These conceits aside, there are some good moments in the film, thanks to thoughtful set design and engaging performances by Everett as Oberon and Tucci as the, er, puckish Robin Goodfellow.

If you want to know how the plot of this thing unfolds, read the frickin' play, because it's pretty convoluted. Let's just say it involves a love triangle complicated by political intrigue, an attempted elopement by night, a female stalker, a troupe of low-rent actors, and a jealous fairy king whose schemes cause the sort of multi-layered misunderstandings that would go on to inspire any number of Three's Company episodes. It's a comedy, though, so everything turns out happily in the end.

In the wrong hands, such exquisitely mannered stuff can be either stultifying or just silly. The actors have to understand it deeply enough to make it accessible to the audience, yet also utter the lines as though they'd never been spoken before. After 400 years, both requirements are tougher than ever, but some of this cast pull it off. Rupert Everett (My Best Friend's Wedding) in particular, with his brooding, English handsomeness, brings the fairy king Oberon to life with equal parts bitterness and mischievousness. As Puck, Oberon's underling and errand boy, Stanley Tucci (Big Night) also demonstrates an easy facility with the Bard's turn of phrase. When he bemusedly says "What fools these mortals be," it seems so natural that it takes a second to register that he's just uttered one of the most famous quotes in all of Shakespeare. Together, the two actors give their characters a depth of mutual familiarity one would expect from immortals. Michelle Pfeiffer, for her part, is a beautiful (if strangely virginal) Titania, and Kevin Kline has great fun making an ass of himself as the aptly named Bottom. Less successful are David Strathairn and Calista Flockhart. Strathairn, whose Theseus sounds like something out of a high school drama class, should have been reminded that it's okay to break the iambic pentameter rhythm. As the lovelorn Helena, Flockhart tries too hard, with too much Ally McBeal melodrama, and thus fails to convince.

With all these characters (and more) flitting from scene to scene, Hoffman and production designer Luciana Arrighi wisely chose to create a small but effective forest set rather than film on location. It's stagy, but that's the idea; it allows for an Elizabethan intimacy, but still looks wild enough to harbor sprites and nymphs and such. This latter aspect also heightens the film's sensuality, both in the scenes involving Lysander and Hermia and in Titania's languid pillow talk with Bottom. Backed up by special effects which for once aren't intrusive, it's a cozy environment that never steals attention from the actors.

The film tends to drag at first, but picks up the pace by the third act and finishes strongly with the troupe's hilarious production of "Pyramus and Thisbe" and the all's-well resolution. While Hoffman's more modern setting doesn't really matter, he makes it work without awkwardness, and he restrains his directorial caprice enough to leave the writer's dialogue alone. By the time Puck finishes his final whimsical disclaimer, that dreaded 400-year-old ghost of English class past won't seem so bad after all.

GRADE:  **1/2

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