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A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM (Michael Hoffman, 116 min, color, 1999)

What's Happening: Lords, ladies, and lads encounter fairies near Monte Athena

Famous For: Good faithful version of the famous Shakespeare play

 

Always popular on stage, A Midsummer Night's Dream has also seen its share of film versions, including a strong (if somewhat outdated) b&w 1930s adaptation with Mickey Rooney as Puck.  Despite some unusual choices, this 1999 British-American-Italian co-production is highly entertaining, at least as good as the 1930s version in almost every way.

One unusual choice is casting Stanley Tucci as Puck, making Puck laid back and mature rather than tricky and energetic as is the usual.

 

This leads to the next choice: making Bottom the central character rather than Puck.  Bottom gets a few extra silent scenes making him out to be sensitive and sweet (if overly eager) rather than pushy or annoying as he is sometimes interpreted.  Bottom also gets a shrewish wife (something new in the film) who gets one line in Italian.

 

A third choice - perhaps the most surprising - is the excising of the famous fairy songs and dances, including the scolding of the snakes before Titania sleeps at the start of Act II, scene 2.

Can A Midsummer Night's Dream succeed without the songs and dances that are its most famous attractions?  Yes it can, happily, owing to the lavish costumes and sets which provide the spectacle otherwise provided from the songs and dances, and owing also to a dozen wonderful performances from the bravura cast.

 

Kevin Kline makes Bottom lovable from the start, even at his most ridiculous.  Michelle Pfeiffer helps Titania retain her power and dignity even though she is charmed for more than half the story.  Rupert Everett gives Oberon an unbending confidence even when speaking in a soft voice (though we never do learn if he got the Indian Boy).

 

Calista Flockhart won me over as Helena; I always thought Helena too self-pitying when reading the play, but Flockhart's Helena seems sincere and hopeful, if a little unlucky compared to Hermia.  As for Hermia, Anna Friel helps her seem intelligent even at her most confused.  Dominic West gives Lysander a toughness that makes his attempt to seduce Hermia in the woods more believable.  Christian Bale plays the relatively minor role of Demetrius; rough as he is, you can't quite hate the guy.

Setting the play in turn-of-the-century Italy was another nice choice.  It's exotic enough to retain the feel of a dreamy fantasy yet familiar enough for modern viewers to relate.  I particularly love the scenes in the woods, obviously shot on sets but well lit and imbued with fairy atmosphere from all the echoing insect and animal sounds.

 

And the fairies?  It's the Renaissance and Victorian kind of fairies, the kind that was still sexy and dangerous before Peter Pan changed fairy stories from titillating entertainment aimed at adults into innocent entertainment aimed at children.

My main criticism is that it takes too long to end… the final third is slow, and we get three or four codas when one or two would have been fine.  I also think there are too many bicycle horn honks in the second half.  But there's always something gorgeous to look at on screen.

 

Little touches I enjoyed: the old dusty law book that lists the "ancient privilege of Athens," Hippolyta angry at Theseus until he supports Hermia at the end, Demetrius closing the shutters on Helena, the donkey that crosses the screen just before we see Bottom for the first time, the boys with the wine, the fairy tavern featuring music by Simon Boswell, the fairies' fascination with Victorian technology, the profusion of kisses at the banquet, the workmen's prayer to Mary before the play-within-a-play, the bricked-up casement window, Peter Quince's reacting off stage to the mishaps on the stage, Flute's pulling off the wig when he speaks his lines well, and the dog landing in stuffy Philostrate's lap.

The play's most famous line is "Lord, what fools these mortals be," but I quoted the second-most-famous line below.  Hoffman directed Kline again in the excellent Emperor's Club (2002).

 

Action: 6.  Gore: 3.  Sex: 6.  Quality: 8.  Camp: 7.

Don't miss: Mirror mirror

Quotable line: "The course of true love never did run smooth."

...

Review post date February 23, 2020


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