For me, watching a production of Shakespeare is tricky. If I am familiar with the play, I already have the ideal version embedded in my imagination --for nothing can compare with what we conjure in our minds. And over the years as I've attended theatrical productions or watched film or TV two things: either one or more of the main roles is miscast or the director's vision proves to be ill-formed.
One of the reasons that Shakespeare in Love proved so satisfying is that John Madden cast with care. And of the recent spate of films based on the Bard's work, only a handful (i.e., Kenneth Branagh's version of Hamlet) proved fully realized. When I read about the new version of Willliam Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream (as opposed to whose, Christopher Marlowe?), I was hopeful. Just the cast alone (Kevin Kline, Roger Rees, Michelle Pfeiffer, Rupert Everett, Calista Flockhart, Christian Bale, Anna Friel and Stanley Tucci) boded well. The director Michael Hoffman has proven adept at both comedy (Soapdish) and period drama (Restoration). The end result, however, is a mixed bag. There are some wonderful segments and there are some cringe-inducing ones.
The play itself is tricky, there are three main sets of characters: a quartet of mismatched lovers, the mechanicals who have formed a ragtag acting troupe, and the fairies. Various directors have emphasized different elements. In trying to find a balance among the three, Hoffman manages to succeed in two out of the three areas. In his adaptation, the director moved the play's setting from ancient Athens to late 19th-century Tuscany in part to allow the use of a bicycle as a key in the lovers' segments. The film begins with specks of light like fireflies that represent the fairies and then cuts to lush shots of the Tuscan hills, followed by the preparations for a sumptuous feast. Gradually, the key players are introduced and the plot set in motion. It is in these early scenes that the film slows a bit. Not that Hoffman handles things in a clumsy fashion -- it is that the story has many players and is very plot heavy and therefore it takes the audience a bit of time to sort out who is who and for whom they should root.
In the production notes, Hoffman is quoted as saying that the germ of the idea for the film came from "an image of this fat little Puck riding through the Tuscan countryside on the back of a turtle." He also later notes that the biggest challenge he faced was in realizing the fairy world, and here I would argue is where he falls a bit short. Granted his are not the mud-covered urchins of another production, nor are they Peter Pan-like sweet things either.
The casting of Rupert Everett and Michelle Pfeiffer as the warring monarchs of this world is on target. Both exude the proper air of a ruler and each looks fabulous in their costumes; Pfeiffer especially has never seemed more radiant. Only when she delivers her lines in a So-Cal, semi-Valley Girl accent does she seem off-target. It's a shame as this actress managed to acquit herself in Central Park as Olivia in Twelfth Night and used her voice more appropriately in Dangerous Liaisons. Here she seems uncomfortable and tentative, as if acting in a foreign language. It doesn't help that she is paired on screen first with Everett, who is every inch a king and lends his supple voice to the poetry in a naturalistic manner, and then with Kevin Kline as Bottom. While Kline may be noted as a screen comedian, on stage he has excelled as one of America's foremost interpreters of Shakespearea. Next to these co-stars, poor Michelle Pfeiffer struggles gamely.
Hoffman has also erred in not finding his "fat little Puck", casting, or rather miscasting, Stanley Tucci in the role. Tucci is another strong player who here seems to be struggling in the role. With his hair dyed blond and fitted with tiny horns, he is half-satyr, half-man but all wrong. Robin Goodfellow should be impish, Tucci possesses too much gravity. I never got the sense of mischief that the character should naturally emanate. The quartet making up the star-crossed lovers all are fine. Christian Bale and Anna Friel do what they can with Demetrius and Hermia. Dominic West as Lysander is asked to spend most of the film with little or no clothing on and he cuts a dashing and handsome presence. The real standout, though, is Calista Flockhart. Her Helena is a comic gem, a well-thought out interpretation of a the scorned woman. In the hands of a lesser actress, this character could devolve into a whiny pill. To her credit, Flockhart manages to endow Helena with a certain grit and determination and mines the comedy implicit in the character.
In the casting of Kevin Kline as Bottom, who through magic is transformed into an ass and finds himself the object of the fairy queen's affection, Hoffman has shifted the balance of the story onto this character. Kline dominates the sequences in which he appears, superbly capturing a hammy actor who also has a soul. His performance recalls his previous work for the director in Soapdish and the actor manages to walk a fine line between too little and too much. This is his richest performance in years. He is ably supported by Roger Rees, Max Wright, Bill Irwin, Greg Jbara, and particularly Sam Rockwell as the other members of the acting troupe.
Also deserving of mention is David Strathairn, appropriately regal and judicial in his role of the Duke. Similarly, I must cite the fine contributions of cinematographer Oliver Stapleton and production designer Luciana Arrighi have collaborated to create a lush, romanticized world that encompassed the stately residence of the Duke, the mysterious forest into which the lovers flee, the bustling town square where the acting troupe rehearses and the pagan-like world of the fairies, and costume designer Gabriella Pescucci also deserves mention for the period garb she crafted and Simon Boswell's lovely score that incorporates selections from Italian operas.
So, in addition to the fine acting by Kline, Flockhart, Rockwell and Everett, one can savor the visual and aural charms the film has to offer. Is this a perfect Dream? Not exactly, but it's a delightful reverie as opposed to a nightmare.
RATING: B MPAA RATING: PG-13 for some sexual content RUNNING TIME: 116 mins.