Of the half-dozen productions of A Midsummer Night's Dream I've seen, including a stilted BBC version filmed for television and a spectacular amateur dramatization in the woods, I'd rank Michael Hoffman's 1999 film somewhere in the middle. Visually, it's magnificent. The fairy scenes have the ethereal loveliness of Pre-Raphaelite artwork, and the "civilized" sets contrast elegant Italian antiques with the earthy pleasures of the great outdoors. The lighting effects are stunning as well. Directors planning future productions of Peter Pan (or anything else involving flying sprites) should study the sequences with firefly-like fairies, best illustrated by the illuminated opening credits. To watch this film is to feel as though one has fallen into Edward Robert Hughes' incandescent painting, Midsummer Eve.
For anyone not familiar with the story...Theseus, the Duke, is about to celebrate his marriage to the Amazon Hippolyta when one of his advisors comes to him with a problem: he has betrothed his daughter Hermia to a young man named Demetrius, but Hermia wants to marry her beloved Lysander. Theseus demands that Hermia obey the law and marry the man her father has chosen for her, or else leave society forever. Given this ultimatum, Hermia flees with Lysander into the woods. They are chased by Demetrius, who is in turn chased by Helena -- Hermia's best friend, who is madly in love with her intended. The youths attract the attention of Oberon, King of the Fairies, in the midst of his own quarrel with his wife Titania. During the course of a single night, the fairy Robin Goodfellow manipulates the romantic problems of all the couples until the young lovers have sorted themselves into happy pairs, the fairy rulers have reconciled and the king taken a bride.
The major subplot involves an amateur theatrical intended to amuse the Duke for his wedding. During a late rehearsal, an actor is magically transformed into an ass, then set up for a romantic interlude with the bewitched Titania. The comical events of their tryst and the subsequent, dreadful play performed at the wedding lend hilarity even to poor productions of A Midsummer Night's Dream but, in this version, they're easily the finest moments of the film. Though he's in a relatively minor role, Kevin Kline -- who grows donkey ears as Bottom and later plays the lead in "The Most Lamentable Comedy of Pyramus and Thisby" -- ends up stealing the film.
Kline is lucky in that his character's major monologue remains intact. Most of the ensemble cast offer excellent performances with what material they're given, but the roles have been truncated to shorten the length of the film. This is a blessing in the case of Calista Flockhart's ditzy Helena, but a pity for Sophie Marceau's Hippolyta who barely speaks a word. The screenplay omits many of Shakespeare's most memorable lines, including Theseus' magnificent "The lunatic, the lover, and the poet/Are of imagination all compact" speech, which encapsulates the theme of the play. The editing does a disservice particularly to the courtly characters.
But the film is more interested in the fairies than the mortal fools. Oberon and Titania dominate the night scenes, resembling Hylas and the Lady of Shalott from J.W. Waterhouse paintings. This fairy queen looks ethereal rather than earthily sexy, so Michelle Pfeiffer has her best moments while bewitched -- Kline is attractive even hirsute and donkey-eared, and Pfeiffer radiates romantic confidence. She doesn't look nearly as ridiculous with Bottom as Oberon hopes. Rupert Everett plays the tortured husband brooding in a boyish manner, less regal than his queen; he's an interesting contrast with aging aristocrat Theseus, who's more like a formal John Singer Sargent portrait compared to the wild folk in the woods.
Set in 19th-century Italy in the town of Monte Athena, this Midsummer Night's humans ride bicycles and wear Victorian clothing. This creates a few anachronisms, but allows for visual humor and detail that neither a Renaissance nor a modern setting would necessarily provide. Anna Friel's Hermia and Dominic West's Lysander are very sexy together, especially once he takes his clothes off. Christian Bale, as Demetrius, looks more like a Ralph Lauren model and plays the character about as stiffly, but that's appropriate, whereas Flockhart's casting as Helena simply mystifies.
Helena is supposed to be giddy and lovestruck, but also passionate and strong. She is the one character who manages to win a spouse who did not love her initially. The audience has to believe that Demetrius would still want her once the fairy juice wears off, but in this case, it's hard to see what he would want with a sniveling, slavish 19th century Ally McBeal. There's supposed to be a certain wit to her declaration that she wants him to treat her like his dog, but the irony is lost in this production. Helena works best played by a performer with presence which Flockhart lacks both physically and vocally. Moreover, it is apparent when she embraces Freil that the women are the same height, which makes the later argument between the two women about Hermia's shortness seem cruel and contrived.
I can't say enough good things about Oliver Stapleton's photography, nor about the film's use of music -- particularly Mendelssohn's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" overture which is excerpted in the score. In one scene, a field of flowers turns from white to red when hit by Cupid's arrow; this could have looked like a comic Alice In Wonderland effect, but instead it has a mystical quality lit with the golden hues that permeate the film. Bottom's transformation from an ass back into a man has the same otherworldliness, even though he wakes in a sparse field in dramatic contrast to the lushness of Titania's bower.
There's visual humor aplenty: a mud-fight, some shots of the men's naked butts, and the screamingly funny play with gimmicks involving a lantern, a dog, and the poor man stuck with Thisby's role. Hoffman is not overly faithful to the Elizabethan version of the story, but he makes the story his own, with many unforgettable images and such crisply merged effects that one expects to see fairies flitting through the street lights outside when one finishes watching the movie. Hoffman and his cast make it easy to forget that A Midsummer Night's Dream was written four hundred years ago, for it seems like a dream any of us might have on a warm evening when the fireflies come out.
[Michelle Erica Green]