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A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Rupert Everett, Calista Flockhart, Kevin Kline, Michelle Pfeiffer, Stanley Tucci
Director:  Michael Hoffman
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1
Video:  Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio:  20th Century Fox
Features:  Theatrical Trailer
Length:  120 Minutes
Release Date:  November 30, 1999

Film **1/2

As much as I love Shakespeare, I must confess that A Midsummer Night’s Dream, despite its obvious popularity, has never been a favorite of mine amongst the Bard’s plays.  The backbone of the comedy involves a secret potion that makes the recipient, upon awakening, fall in love with the first person he or she looks upon.  It’s essentially a one-joke premise that would look more at home in a half hour sitcom than as an entry from the world’s greatest playwright.  It’s almost as if Will became Allen Funt, saying, “we thought it would be funny if…”

But despite the fact that it’s one of the weaker entries in the Shakespearean library, I must give credit and say that director Michael Hoffman and his cast have pulled off a rather splendid film production.  Sometimes you have to worry a little when you learn that there’s to be an adaptation of one of the Bard’s works for the screen, featuring a cache of some of Hollywood’s hottest stars.  Shakespeare always has been and continues to be a measuring stick for actors who want to prove their mettle.  Sometimes, however, they are measured and come up short.  There are few things quite so painful as listening to some modern actor tripping over some of the most beautiful and richly written dialogue ever put to paper, or when it’s just plainly obvious that they don’t know what they’re saying, phonetically pronouncing words and phrases with the exact injunction the director demands, but with no reel feeling for the part.

Happily, there are no complaints with this cast.  All of them hold their heads above water just fine, and the real standouts, Rupert Everett and Kevin Kline, look as comfortable doing Shakespeare as anything they’ve ever performed in.

The story begins when a young woman, Hermia (Anna Friel) is being forced by her father under Athenian law to either marry the man he has chosen for her, or die.  So she and the man she really loves, Lysander (Dominic West) decide to flee the city.  Through the woods.

The man Hermia is supposed to marry, Demetrius (Christian Bale), is none to happy about her scorning, and even less happy to be the recipient of much unwanted affection from Helena (Flockhart).  Helena tries to turn his attention from Hermia by telling him she’s run off.  Instead, he decides to pursue her, with Helena right behind.  Through the woods.

Finally, a group of actors led by the pompous Bottom (Kline) are preparing for a rather bizarre play.  They need a space for rehearsal.  Where do they go?  To the woods, naturally.

In the heart of the woods, there has been a disagreement between Oberon (Everett), leader of the wood spirits, and Titania (Pfeiffer), queen of the fairies.  For revenge, Oberon plans to use the juice of a flower pierced by Cupid’s arrow on her…it will force her to fall hopelessly in love with whomever she first sees upon awakening.  But Oberon has also noticed Helena’s cruel plight, as she pleads to the stubborn Demetrius.  He calls for his assistant, Puck (Tucci) to use the potion first on Titania, then on Demetrius.

Two unexpected turns occur.  Puck casts the spell on Titania, but amused by the pomposity of the nearby Bottom, decides to turn the actor into a donkey.  Then, he picks the wrong Athenian, and uses the potion on Lysander instead of Demetrius.  When Lysander wakes up, he forgets Hermia and pines for Helena.  It only gets worse when Puck finally gives the potion to Demetrius.  Now, the bewildered Helena has two relentless pursuers.

Meanwhile, Titania awakens and falls for Bottom in all his braying glory.  Oberon soon finds himself with quite a mess on his hands, and needing to clear it up before morning.

Well, things do work out in the end, but the problem is, after the story’s resolution, there’s about a half hour of film left to go so that we can see Bottom play his part.  It’s an amusing sequence, but unnecessary…perhaps Shakespeare still had to learn “All’s Well That End’s Well”.

An interesting decision was to set the film about 400 years later than the play was intended, in the 1900’s.  This allows for the use of bicycles, phonographs, and other such inventions to give the picture a little cinematic flavor.  One aspect that puzzled me no end, however, was the constant use of Italian opera in the soundtrack, considering the story takes place in Athens.

Still, the more modernized setting provides for a great look for the film in terms of costumes and sets.  The woods themselves are nicely crafted, looking somewhere between real and make-believe.  Given the nature of the story, it’s an appropriate choice.

In the end, the result of the film is a well-crafted take on somewhat limited source material, not one of Shakespeare’s better offerings in terms of well drawn and dimensional characters.  It’s a pleasant enough diversion, but pales a bit in comparison to some of the better Bard films in recent years. 

Video ***

Fox has foregone anamorphic enhancement for this title, but the overall result of the transfer is still satisfactory, if not exemplary.  The only real complaint is that images look a tiny bit soft throughout, including facial features and lack of detail in deep backgrounds.  Apart from that, there was no noticeable grain, even in the night settings, and good color rendering throughout. 

Audio **1/2

The 5.1 soundtrack is fine but unremarkable, the nature of the picture being rather undemanding of digital surround.  It comes to life mostly with the generous helpings of “La Traviata” and other Italian opera bits.  The rear stage helps carry some of the music, and that's about it.  I never noticed any signal from the .1 channel at all. 

Features *

Only a trailer.

Summary:

With a good, spirited cast and a nice overall look to the picture, A Midsummer Night’s Dream is about as good as can be hoped for.  It’s simply one of my least favorite plays from the Bard, and all the dedication in the world can’t disguise the fact that it’s basically a big, empty romp structured around a single joke.  I wouldn’t mind seeing this same crew and cast reunite for a better Shakespearean offering, like maybe The Tempest.  Kevin Kline would make a great Prospero, don’t you think?