Films

What muddled dreams may come

Hollywood loves—but doesn’t quite trust—Shakespeare

John Bemrose May 17 1999
Films

What muddled dreams may come

Hollywood loves—but doesn’t quite trust—Shakespeare

John Bemrose May 17 1999

What muddled dreams may come

Films

Hollywood loves—but doesn’t quite trust—Shakespeare

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Directed by Michael Hoffman

After Shakespeare in Love, Hamlet, Romeo + Juliet and all the other recent plunderings of Shakespeare, it was only a matter of time until someone got around to making a new version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. After all, it is the most perennially popular of Shakespeare’s comedies, with a ready-made audience of millions who have studied it in school, or seen it acted in theatres great and small around the world. To watch Bottom, Puck and the quarrelling lovers is for many people like resuming an old friendship. Several cinematic versions have been made of the play: film audiences would seem to be ever-ripe ground for Shakespeare’s intoxicating mix of romance and broad humour. And so A Midsummer Night’s Dream hits the screen once more, ambitiously directed by Michael Hoffman and starring Kevin Kline and Michelle Pfeiffer.

Those two might seem unlikely Shakespeareans, but both have acted the bard before, and they bring an exquisite tenderness to the famous meeting between Titania, Queen of the Fairies, and her ass-eared lover, Bottom. The major problems that afflict this film lie elsewhere. In fact, A Midsummer Night’s Dream feels like two movies under the guise of one. One is a standard and fairly tedious Hollywood costume drama where the pretty locations, computer-driven special effects and booming operatic score, courtesy of Verdi and Puccini, matter most. The other movie is recognizably Shakespearean, where the momentum of the play’s language and story is trusted to do its work. At the

best of times, these two strands marry to generate some fine scenes. But too often the movie jolts along with a divided mind, never quite sure whether it wants to be a sugary Hollywood fantasy or guts-and-soul Shakespeare.

The split is clear right from the opening scene, which borrows heavily from Kenneth Branagh’s 1993 version of Much Ado About Nothing. Both films are

set in the dry hills of Tuscany, and both open with an exuberant rush of operatic music. But while Branagh ultimately gives primacy to the text of the play, Dream’s camera lingers typically over the preparations for the wedding feast of Duke Theseus (David Strathairn). So great is the press of servants and cooks that Theseus’ famous opening speech to his bride, Hippolyta (Sophie Marceau), has to be breathed privately into her ear. There is nothing wrong with this, except that the actors seem unaware that they are speaking poetry: their conversation mumbles along like some-

thing overheard on a crowded bus.

The acting improves when the action shifts to the enchanted woods ruled over by the King of the Fairies, Oberon (Rupert Everett), and his mischievous executive assistant, Puck (a balding, behorned Stanley Tucci). Puck, of course, plays havoc with the four young lovers (Calista Flockhart, Anna Friel, Christian Bale, Dominic West) who are there to sort out their amorous complications. In a nice touch, Hoffman has them riding bicycles, and when Puck—who has never seen a bicycle before—steals one to carry out his errands, the film strikes a pleasing irony. After all, the rogue could fly if he wanted to, but instead he pedals around the woods in a transport of childlike joy.

Left to themselves, the actors might have saved this Dream. But time and again, it strays off into long uninteresting silences, or invented (but unnecessary)

scenes, backed by passages of gorgeous music meant to manipulate our feelings. At such times, the whole enterprise falls flat, and the attempt to revive it with cute special effects (the worst portrays the fairies as a travelling crowd ofTinkerbelllike points of light) only makes matters worse. The best films of Shakespeare’s plays know how to surf the powerful, unrelenting wave of his language. This Midsummer Night’s Dream tries to find its magic elsewhere—and falls under a spell of confusion it cannot break.

John Bemrose