William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream (1999)
Main cast: Rupert Everett (Oberon), Michelle Pfeiffer (Titiana), Calista Flockhart (Helena), Dominic West (Lysander), Anna Friel (Hermia), Christian Bale (Demetrius), Kevin Kline (Bottom) and Stanley Tucci (Puck/Robin)
Director: Michael Hoffman
I am always fond of Shakespeare's comedies. As You Like It, Taming of The Shrew, and A Midsummer Night's Dream are among my favorites, although in AMND, there is a noticeable lack of any strong character and relationship development. Yet in the hands of a right director, AMND can be a Bacchanalian feast of sensual delights. After all, we have lusty faerie folks, we have two couples of young, impetous lovers in full bloom of youth, and all sorts of tantalizing shennigans in a moonlit forest. Unfortunately, this isn't one of the better Shakespearean revisionist movies. Director Michael Hoffman had added in brilliant elements: courtship on bicycles and opera music in 19th century Athens. Instead of lovelorn lovers chasing each other on foot, we have them on bicycles - a quaint yet wonderfully inventive notion! The cast is youthful and good-looking, and the scenery is gorgeous. It is unfortunate that the acting leaves a lot to be desired. Also, the last 15 minutes really drag. AMND ended up a beautiful photo album filled with gorgeous people and panoramic landscapes, good to look at but ultimately bloodless.
The plot should be well-known to many. It takes three seemingly unrelated incidents and masterfully weaves them all into a delightful comedy of errors. Faerie rulers King Oberon and Queen Titiana are bickering over the care of a mortal boy they both care about. Helena loves Demetrius who loves Hermia who loves Lysander who, thankfully, loves Hermia. The Duke Theseus is marrying Queen Hippolyta and offers a generous sum of money to the best play on his wedding. The fun starts when Oberon plots to make Titiana fall in love utterly with him using an enchanted bloom of flowers. He summoned his sidekick Puck to seek the flowers. Along the way they stumbled upon the pair of star-crossed lovers, and decided to give a helping hand. Puck would use the flower's enchantment to increase Lysander's devotion to Hermia. The spell works in such that an enchanted person would fall in love with the person he/she first meets. Unfortunately, the first person Lysander meets is Helena. Meanwhile, Oberon uses the enchantment on sleeping Titiana. Puck casts a spell on one of the strolling actors, Bottom, turning him into a man with the face of a donkey. And he is the first person Titiana sees. Oh boy.
There are many elements in this story that could make Freud dance in glee. I've read treatises on AMND charging it with everything from sexual violence, spouse-swapping, to bestiality. But this movie has toned down whatever lewd or offensive innuendos the play may suggests into a bouncy, playful romp in misty moonlit woods. Almost bouncy and playful, that is. The cast is, on its part, mostly adequate. They don't try too hard however. Rupert Everett and Michelle Pfeiffer on their part sleepwalk through their roles. Kevin Kline is amiably befuddled in his role as Bottom. Bottom is man trapped in a lifeless marriage, who daydreams his way through life. Kevin, however, plays Bottom lacklustrely, giving me the impression that he isn't really into it. That's the problem. Most of the characters don't stick to my mind. Lysander and Demetrius are bland, interchangeable really. Hermia is sweet and well, nothing else. It's easy to see why Lysander and Demetrius are enchanted with her. Blandness stick together. As for Puck, Stanley Tucci lacks the mischoevous, playful nature his role suggests, acting like he's cold casserole warmed over. Is it me or that part when he stumbles upon sleeping Lysander and Hermia, he looks absolutely embarrassed in a what am I doing here way?
It is Calista as Helena who is the most memorable character. Calista, contrary to what others may think, has a life before Ally McBeal. An accomplished stage actress, she plays Helena with absolute panache. Here is a woman, ditched by her lover for a bland Hermia, and damn it, she refuses to take that! No, no, no! She practically stalks Demetrius with a fiery zeal, all the while lamenting her lack of beauty compared to Hermia. But this is no woman with low self-esteem, but a woman who will get what she wants. She has fire. When she declares to Demetrius Treat me like your spaniel, to use and hit as you please you know she's actually saying Here's your leash, prepare to be hen-pecked. Helena's a glorious tempest compared to mousy sweet Hermia. I wonder what she sees in Demetrius.
It is a pity that for a movie that claims to update the Shakespeare play to the 19th century, it dares not take any risks to explore the interactions and motivations of its characters. Oh, there are moments of brilliance. The scene where Oberon contemplates a sleeping Titiana wrapped around Bottom, his face an animated palette of envy and regret at what-might-have-beens. At that moment I could almost sense that he does care for his consort in his own way, only he doesn't know how to show it. There is a memorable fire-and-brimstone confrontation between these two faerie rulers in the beginning as they fought over the child, but eventually what promises to be an intriguing love-hate relationship is shoved away for the four young lovers' nonsense. Bottom's relationship with his shrewish wife could be fleshed out better. And the four young people... it's a crime the way their relationships are treated. Hermia, the source of so much male rivalry, should be better. I never see why she is so precious, so worthy of male attention. There's no fire in her. Oh Helena, you should move to another city where the men are fire. Try New Orleans.
For a movie who wants to try new things with Shakespeare, it is a pity it doesn't dare to trifle with the script a little.
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