William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream (1999)

D: Michael Hoffman
S: Kevin Kline, Calista Flockhart

Attractive rendering of the whimsical Shakespearian comedy with a top cast. The film never quite enthrals as it should though, perhaps due to the studied performances and the obvious hope that its appeal to our indulgence will cause us to overlook its shortcomings. Despite tinkering with the setting by transferring the action to 19th Century Italy (precisely why is a mystery), the film is largely respectful of its source. This causes certain problems, as it is often difficult to follow the dialogue and cherish its poetic subtlety given the eye-catching set design, visual effects and the wealth of costumes, props and make-up.

The action follows the fates of four flustered lovers beset by both social and personal pressures who encounter the whims of Fairies when they enter a nearby forest one fateful Summer night. It seems that the King (Rupert Everett) and Queen (Michelle Pfeiffer) are having a tiff of their own, and the former's musings on the subject of love cause him to intervene in the mortals' quarrels with comic results, especially when his servant, Puck (Stanley Tucci) mixes up his instructions and makes the wrong man fall for the wrong woman. Meanwhile a troupe of actors also blunder into their domain and one of them is transformed into an ass in what we must presume was, even for Shakespeare, an obvious and rather irritating bit of self-parody.

In fact much of the film is infected by the uncertainty which seems to dominate the play. The famous final speech which asks us not to take offence at the adventures of these sprites and shadows has always struck me as dangerously close to an unnecessary apologia for the employment of fantasy. It seems particularly anachronistic in the era of digital image manipulation and after a hundred years of cinema itself, and though of course vital to the original text, it certainly seems pointless except as homage. We're long past being shocked by sexual indiscretion or the suggestion of fairies, and both Shakespeare (in his original text) and Hoffman and his cast seem keen to remind us that it's all in the spirit of playful fancy and we should just enjoy it.

This is at the root of the film's problems. Everyone seems to be working so hard at making it enjoyable that they don't seem to be having very much fun themselves. With such a stellar cast and such immaculate production trappings, the film is nervously correct and seems desperate to win our affection. Nowhere is this more evident than in the performance of Kevin Kline as Bottom (the actor who becomes an ass). There seems all too much effort in his precise delivery for very much humour to come through, and his attempts to shift tone and mood to portray the character's hidden human depths seem forced. The same applies to all of the cast, if less intensely. Everett seems more bored than moody as Oberon. Pfeiffer is simply overwhelmed by her army of nymphs, sprites and leafy costumes. Calista Flockhart is not bad as the anxious Helena (though many viewers will simply see her as a variant on her character in Ally McBeal), but Anna Friel (Rogue Trader), Christian Bale (Empire of the Sun) and Dominic West (Diana & Me), as the remainder of the foursome seem to be running their lines with intense concentration and have little time for much in the way of facial expression or additional physical interpretation. For all that the dialogue frequently disappears in a fog of desperate superficiality, and what dramatic content there is to the original text is submerged in mud wrestling and cycling. David Straitharn (L.A. Confidential) seems constipated as the local Duke with Sophie Marceau (Braveheart) an almost invisible, pouting Hippolyta.

Everyone seems to be concentrating so hard on what they're doing and saying that it is difficult to get into the spirit of things as Hoffman and Shakespeare seem to have intended. It's hard to have a good time when you're being forced to do it. Despite the obvious hope that this lush production will seduce us with its charming detail and its rendering of a classic theatrical text, it is not particularly enjoyable. Fans of the cast may get something from it, and it is a fairly well-crafted piece of adaptation overall. It just seems to me that something so magical needs more sleight of hand to disguise the effort that has been put into it. Here, it is all too obvious.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1999.