The Bard continues to ride high in American film with “William Shakespeare’s a Midsummer Night’s Dream,” Michael Hoffman’s whimsical, intermittently enjoyable but decidedly unmagical version of the playwright’s wild romantic comedy. Set in Tuscany at the turn of the century, this modernist comedy features an impressive cast, toplined by Michelle Pfeiffer, Kevin Kline, Rupert Everett and Calista Flockhart, that elevates film above its flaws. Pic brims with ideas and promises but suffers from a lack of coherent vision, a pedestrian second act, and an incongruous tone, the result of diverse acting styles from the Brit, American and French thesps. Fox Searchlight’s aggressive marketing campaign, as well as residual benefits from the “Shakespeare in Love” bonanza, should help overcome a lukewarm critical reception in generating moderate business, but B.O. will fall below expectations for what is trumpted as Searchlight’s biggest production to date.
“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” has inspired numerous stage productions, a filmed version of Peter Hall’s production at the Royal Shakespeare Co. (with Diana Rigg and Judi Dench), a film of the New York City Ballet’s presentation (with Edward Villela and Suzanne Farrell) and several movies loosely based on the play, most notably Ingmar Bergman’s “Smiles of a Summer Night” and Woody Allen’s “A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy.” But, surprisingly, there has been one major studio production, from Warner Bros. in 1935, co-directed by the celebrated Austrian theater director Max Reinhardt and William Dieterle, based on Reinhardt’s Hollywood Bowl spectacle of 1934.
The reason for this paucity, compared with the multiple renditions of the Bard’s other comedies and tragedies, lies in the nature of a comedy that seems deceptively light, even frivolous, but is extremely complex. “Midsummer” contains libidinal confessions, surreal fantasies that get enacted, exuberant monologues about love and sex, quick changes of scenes, tones, and moods — all elements that do not lend themselves easily to the bigscreen. Among other things , the play furnishes strong support to the assertion that it was Shakespeare, not Freud, who discovered the unconscious and its power on human conduct.
Scanning Italy’s gorgeous landscapes, Hoffman’s interpretation begins on a high note. The moral context is set when a narrator tells the audience that these are new times, “the end of high collars and bustles.” The mode of transformation is the bicycle, which plays a major part in the film, signaling the physical and psychological freedom of the characters as they embark on a recklessly intense journey into the night.
Preparation for the wedding of Duke Theseus (David Strathairn) and Hippolyta (Sophie Marceau) are under way, when the Duke is forced to listen to the complaints of opposing sides in a dispute over an arranged marriage. The old crusty Egeus (Bernard Hill) has promised his daughter Hermia (Anna Friel) to Demetrius (Christian Bale), but she loves Lysander (Dominic West). Hermia plans to elope with her lover to the woods, using a newfangled invention, the bike, but her best friend, Helena (Calista Flockhart), who is in love with Demetrius, knows and warns of the plot.
Also bound for the same forest is a band of the village’s amateur players, searching for an isolated spot to rehearse their production of “The Most Lamentable Comedy, the Cruel Death of Pyramus and Thisbe.” Of the quintet of workmen, it’s Bottom the Weaver (Kevin Kline), who’s the most dilettante but also the most ambitious, wishing in his hammy way to get the play’s best parts, endlessly arguing with the company’s manager, Peter Quince (Roger Rees).
Both sets of lovers and thesps are unaware that the dark forest is actually the secret home of the fairies, where the trickster Puck (Stanley Tucci) administers a powerful love potion that causes all the participants to change and mix their partners in a incorrigible, outrageous manner. Indeed, before long Puck becomes a pawn in the love games of the fairies’ king and queen, Oberon and Titania (Rupert Everett and Michelle Pfeiffer).
The major deviations of this version from Reinhardt’s are conceptual. The central figure in the 1935 movie, which was done as a spectacle with dances and songs, is Bottom, played by youngster Mickey Rooney as a wild child who incessantly comments on the narrative’s twists and turns. However, in the new version, Puck is an older, tamer character. Strangely, in Hoffman’s film the central character is Bottom, a combined result of helmer’s subjective interpretation and Kline’s domineering screen presence.
The early picture treated Shakespeare, Reinhardt and composer Mendelssohn reverentially — the entire prelude is performed in the 1935 film before the story proper begins. Hoffman uses elements of Mendelssohn, but he enriches the score with bel canto, arias from Verdi’s “La Traviata,” as well as a new score from Simon Boswell.
Unfortunately, Hoffman employs the new historical and geographical setting rather conventionally, the same way James Ivory treated Italy in “A Room With a View” and other films. Though Shakespeare’s comedy is strong enough to be done even in contempo costumes, this rendition does not really benefit from its locale other than offering nice shots by Oliver Stapleton, whose lensing, along with Luciana Arrighi’s production design and Gabriella Pescucci’s elaborate costumes, make for a handsome and appealing production.
Stumbling with pace, helmer also fails to imbue his movie with the sweeping, enchanting feel that gave “Shakespeare in Love” its mass appeal. Vastly uneven, this “Midsummer” is a movie of good moments and scenes but quite as many flat ones, particularly in the second act. With all the special effects, the forest sequences lack the kind of magic possessed by a movie like “The Wizard of Oz,” which, one suspects, is what Hoffman was striving for.
To be sure, the Warners version also suffered from an incongruous cast that included James Cagney, Dick Powell, Olivia de Havilland and Joe E. Brown, and a tone that vacillated from the sublime to the ridiculous.
Similarly, in theory, one can understand the rationale for selecting each member of the cast, from the royal Everett and Pfeiffer to popular TV figure Flockhart. But striking as the large ensemble is, it reps different acting styles. It’s indicative that most thesps shine in their monologues rather than in the interactional scenes, where the incongruity becomes apparent.
There is not much chemistry between Pfeiffer and Everett, nor between Pfeiffer and Kline, particularly in their big love scene. Kline overacts physically and emotionally, Flockhart is entertaining in a broad manner, and Pfeiffer renders a strenuously theatrical performance. Overall, the Brits give more coherent and resonant performances, especially Friel and West as the romantic couple, a restrained Everett as Oberon, and Rees as the theatrical manager.
With a running time of 116 minutes, this “Midsummer” is shorter than the previous Hollywood version by half an hour.