'A Midsummer Night's Dream'
Review: Plenty of fairy dust, little chemistry
May 14, 1999
By Reviewer Paul Clinton
(CNN) -- Hollywood and William Shakespeare have had a long and rocky relationship. And there's an old saying among studio types: "The only good playwright is a dead playwright." The dead ones don't make waves -- or demands. But Shakespeare, while profoundly dead, has never had boffo box-office sales.
And although both Laurence Olivier and Mel Gibson have screened "Hamlet" to great acclaim -- and Franco Zeffirelli's film adaptation of "Romeo and Juliet" is considered a classic -- other attempts at taking the Bard to film have had less success with the movie-going public. Ian McKellen's "Richard III" comes to mind.
Now, a new version of Shakespeare's comedy, "A Midsummer Night's Dream," is in a theater near you. The last serious attempt by Hollywood at this material was in 1935 when director Max Reinhardt (this was his one and only sound film) presented the miscast Mickey Rooney as Puck and Jimmy Cagney as Bottom.
So back we go to that enchanted forest inhabited by those pesky fairies.
'Ill met by moonlight'
Dangerous and mysterious potions, fairy warfare and mismatched love are themes of this 400-year-old comedy. It's arguably Shakespeare's most accessible work and has spawned hundreds, perhaps thousands, of high school productions. Now, director Michael Hoffman has created a new version. He takes the action from ancient Greece to Italy's Tuscany at the end of the 19th century.
It all takes place one star-filled night. The mischievous fairy Puck, played with zest by Stanley Tucci, and the king and queen of the fairies -- Rupert Everett as Oberon and Michelle Pfeiffer as Titania -- turn their enchanted wood into a magical place for mortals in love. But since this is a comedy of errors, they all fall in love with the wrong people.
In this case, the wrong people include Kevin Kline as Bottom, who gets turned into a jackass and becomes the object of affection for Titania. Anna Friel plays Hermia. She's in love with Lysander, played by Dominic West. But she's been promised in marriage to Demetrius, played by Christian Bale. And Calista Flockhart, as the desperate lover Helena, is hot after Demetrius, even as he lusts for Hermia. Got it? Good.
Chaos reigns when the lovers are mixed and matched while inhaling a magic potion. Everyone gets slipped a "mickey" by Puck and in today's world this might be called date rape, but I digress.
'Lord, what fools these mortals be!'
This production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" was a labor of love for all involved. They took huge cuts in their normal salaries in order to make this $14 million film.
Shot on location in Italy, it looks marvelous. Academy Award winner Luciana Arrighi ("Howard's End" and "Oscar and Lucinda") was the production designer. She outdid herself, creating this sensuous magical world-within-a-world. The costumes designed by another Academy winner Gabriella Pescucci ("The Age of Innocence") are at times beautiful and elaborate, at other times brief and glittery.
Special kudos go to Tucci for his performance as Puck, and to Flockhart as Helena. Yep, "Ally McBeal" has stage training and she's not bad. But hands down, Kevin Kline proves once again that he's one of America's best when it comes to performing Shakespearean work.
Unfortunately, despite the wonderful locations, sets, costumes, and strong acting, this adaptation has a strange lack of magic or chemistry between players. That's a major problem since this is a love story, after all.
Still, it's smart counter-marketing to put this film up against "Star Wars." This romantic comedy is aimed directly at women in their 20s and 30s, the demographic group perhaps least likely to take the journey to a galaxy far, far away.
"A Midsummer Night's Dream" opens nationwide on Friday, May 14 and is rated "PG-13" with a running time of 116 minutes.
Flockhart in her element: slap-happy with the Bard
The Works of the Bard -- Shakespeare texts and search engine
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