A Midsummer Night's Dream
Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Michael Hoffman

Starring Kevin Kline, Rupert Everett, Michelle Pfeiffer, Stanley Tucci


A Midsummer Night's Dream

You have to be suspicious of a film that calls itself "William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream," as opposed, I assume, to "Leo Tolstoy's A Midsummer Night's Dream," or "Gabriel Garcia Marquez's A Midsummer Night's Dream," which in fact is something I would gladly pay to see. In this case, though, we're out of luck. As it happens, the screenplay here is credited not to William Shakespeare, or any other Shakespeare, for that matter, but to the director, Michael Hoffman, though if you know the play it's hard to see what lines, if any, Mr. Hoffman actually contributed.

There are a lot of reasons not to like this movie, and the title is the least of them. Instead, let's begin by blaming hubris. Many, many people, mostly junior high school English teachers, believe that because the play is light, has wit, and is filled with both bright and stupid people acting stupidly, that it is therefore a sure thing for the stage, with great appeal for adolescents. So Mr. Hoffman (his previous big credit is 'Soapdish') isn't alone in tackling the play.

But this is where everyone runs into trouble, because while the play is easy to do badly, it is almost impossible to do well. Unlike his other plays, "A Midsummer Night's Dream" is circular in structure; that is, it begins and ends in the same place. There is almost no forward motion, no movement from a beginning in one place to an end in another, and no sense of a great playwright's insight into human behavior -- the insight that deepens and enriches the other comedies. With gods and mortals intermixed, and petulance the deepest emotion shown, this is more what The New Yorker used to call a 'casual,' and not a major work.

Obviously even Shakespeare's minor work is breathtaking by mortal standards, but it takes genius to do it justice. I've always felt that it's easier to do "Lear" -- at any level -- than to do "Midsummer," because no matter how bad the acting or direction in "Lear," the greatness of the play will carry us through to that blinding catharsis at the end. Here everything depends on the acting and direction, and this is the great failure of the movie.

First things first: can the actors read the lines? Well, yes and no. Normally, top billing in this play goes to Oberon and Titania, Shakespeare's variants on the bickering Zeus and Hera -- king and queen of the gods. They have more power at their fingertips than whole countries have here on earth. But Rupert Everett, as Oberon, is the dullest, quietest, most reserved god ever seen, whose only pleasure seems to come from his whispered conspirings with Puck to embarrass Titania. Michelle Pfeiffer, as Titania, is left with no one to play against, and so the play -- the film -- is already skewed badly, because Hoffman has her spend most of her on-screen time in bed with Bottom, the transformed town dolt whom she is bewitched into falling in love with.

And then there is Bottom -- Kevin Kline -- a fine farceur in other films, who shows us here that if you give even a good actor too much rope he'll hang himself and the production with it. Kline gets top billing in the film, which itself is a distortion, for to Shakespeare Bottom is merely the funniest of the town dolts, and not the lead role in the play. Kline hangs on to every line as though it were a deathbed elegy, rolling his eyes and baring his teeth at every moment, and so destroys what should have been fast and witty interplay with his partners.

For no reason that I can think of, Hoffman has taken the film out of ancient Greece, where Shakespeare set it, and put it down in Tuscany at the turn of the 20th century, where the togas the gods wear seem terribly out of place, and the earthlings must now ride frantically around on bicycles. One immediate effect of the move is to demean the, what, the godliness of the gods. They're now just brats in drag, and act it.

Yes, it's true that Calista Flockhart (Helena) and Anna Friel (Hermia) mud-wrestle, and bosoms are flashed here and there. Stanley Tucci as Puck is fine, given the limited space he operates in -- after all, Puck can fly around the world in an instant, but in the film is not asked to do anything more than lean over pretty women and touch their eyes with rose petals. The only actor who comes out with his dignity and talent intact is David Strathairn as Theseus, who at least knows how to read his lines as they were written.

Hoffman has attempted to show magic by means of bright little computer-generated stars that flicker and fly through the sets, to tip us off that magic is afoot. Thanks, but we got it already.    

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