movie review by
Crissa-Jean Chappell


(© 1999 Fox Searchlight Pictures. All rights reserved.)

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William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream

The latest screen revival of Shakespeare's popular comedy A Midsummer Night's Dream translates the story to the Industrial Revolution, "the end of high collars and bustles." A bicycle serves as a metaphor for personal freedom. Mechanical invention boasts man's ingenuity, just as he starts to spurn metaphysics (fairies in the forest, a fatherly God in heaven) and align himself with monkeys. A clever context, this "new" adaptation of William Shakespeare's play, which is neither new nor Shakespeare's in terms of its uneven vision.

Some scholars claim that his characters are "empty vessels" filled by the actors' interpretation. Others believe that a certain set of historically-driven tensions remain intact, despite the time period in which we stage them. The theme, of course, is love--but not the paper Valentine that Tinseltown imagines. Happy endings aside, the Bard made a mockery of romance.

Marriage was on everybody's mind, with an outspoken "virgin" queen on the throne and no king in sight. His plays are quite conventional (sometimes sexist) in their glorification of traditional (i.e. patriarchal) marriage complete with male heirs. A Midsummer Night's Dream is no exception. Erotic love makes the world go around, but it's fraught with chaos and we mortals are fools for believing in it. 'Tis better to believe in fairies.

In that faraway land known as Hollywood, love (or at least, the fairy tale version of it) seems the best way to make a buck. Shakespeare is always bankable, particularly if your last name is Paltrow. When director Michael Hoffman assembled his eclectic cast, (which includes French, English, and American thespians) he seems to have forgotten that his actors, though skilled, are blatantly diverse in their approach to the material. A TV actress (the whiny Calista Flockhart) plays Helena, who refers to herself as a "spaniel" because her lust for Demetrius (Brit-boy Christian Bale) is unrequited. Her friend Hermia is promised to him, but she plots to elope with her lover Lysander (Dominic West) into the woods via bicycle.

As the mismatched couples mutter the usual complaints, the Duke Theseus (David Strathairn) and Hippolyta (Sophie Marceau, who has somehow acquired a British accent) are preparing their own nuptials. In honor of their wedding, a bumbling group of workmen enter an acting contest. They search the enchanted forest for a place to rehearse their production of "Pyramus and Thisbe" (a Romeo and Juliet-type tragedy that they've mangled into a comedy). Enter the tricksters, those wicked fairies like the king's jester, the incorrigible Puck (played by Stanley Tucci) who skulks around drizzling love potions on the wrong partners, wreaking romantic havoc.

The fairy kingdom (as with Greek gods and goddesses) mimics the excitable, imperfect mortal world with its emotional trauma. The fairy king Oberon (Rupert Everett) has a jealous spat with his wife Titania (a glitter-streaked Michelle Pfeiffer) over an Indian boy whom she's adopted. Everett's morose king hardly seems awake, much less furious, and Pfeiffer drones her lines with theatrical stiffness, as if performing for an invisible audience. She falls for the most brazen member of the workmen/actors, one Nick Bottom, who acquires the head of an ass (or in this case, just the ears).

All this hormonal magic takes place amongst glazed scenery, which resembles a Natural Wonders store. Some of the sets work surprisingly well, such as the backdrop when some curious fairies discover a newfangled record player and make bracelets of the disks--a scene that celebrates human imagination, since it gave birth to both fairies and records. Others fall flat, such as the mud-wrestling scene between the mortal women, who wake with their hair puffed into confectionery pillars, strategically-placed to hide their femininity.

Hoffman makes use of Mendelssohn's famous music, including operatic excerpts from Bellini and Verdi. He changes the location to Italy, which makes literary sense (the old notion of "cold" English decorum placed beside "warm" Mediterranean impropriety). With such an ideal setting, why does cinematographer Oliver Stapleton settle for bland shots of artificial logs?

The actors fare well individually, but together their disparate styles tend to clash. Costume and production design (by Gabriella Pescucci and Luciana Arrighi) saves the film. So does the final "play within a play" the wonderfully bad performance by the workmen (representing the "anti-theatricals" who looked down on theater in Shakespeare's day, hence their hilarious preoccupation with explaining the scary parts, lest they upset the ladies in the audience).

One of the more original additions to this Modernist A Midsummer Night's Dream is also period-appropriate--the psycho-analytic method. Here, we glimpse Bottom at home with his wife, wordlessly lamenting his irresponsibility as a dreamer. Perhaps this is Shakespeare's alter-ego, the poet who shrugs, "If you don't like my story, call it a dream." Freud would've had a field day with this one.

[rating: 2½ of 4 stars]