William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream

on May 14, 1999 by Melissa Morrison
   If Michael Hoffman takes any noticeable liberties with Shakespeare's fairy comedy, it's to give Kevin Kline's Nick Bottom, a lowly provincial among royalty, main-character status. No complaints there. Kline ("Wild Wild West") is so comfortable with Shakespearean language that viewers may forget they are hearing literature and simply enjoy Kline's revels.
   Bottom is a hammy actor in a play to be performed at the wedding of Theseus ("Simon Birch's" David Strathairn), a duke, to Hippolyta ("Lost and Found's" Sophie Marceau). During rehearsals in the forest, he stumbles into the fairy kingdom, whose king (Rupert Everett of "My Best Friend's Wedding") turns him into a donkey. It's part of jealous Oberon's spat with his queen ("Deep End of the Ocean's" Michelle Pfeiffer, most ethereal), whom he has tricked into falling in love with the ridiculous Bottom. Unlike in the play, Bottom is not just a source of laughter as an ass unexpectedly enjoying a life of leisure. Here he is given a whole other dimension, including an unhappy marriage and a sad early scene that is the film's only departure from romantic hijinks.
   In classic Shakespeare-in-the-Park fashion, Hoffman has transferred "Midsummer's" original ancient-Greek setting to turn-of-the-century Italy--the village of Mount Athens. That results in the pleasure of watching buttoned-up Victorian lace loosen under the influence of Tuscany's sunny, sensual abundance.
   Most of the unbuttoning occurs among two sets of young lovers -- played by Calista Flockhart ("The Birdcage"), Christian Bale ("Metroland"), Anna Friel ("The Land Girls") and Dominic West ("Spice World") -- who have fled to the forest to sort out their various romantic woes. There they also become unknowing playthings of the fairies. The quartet are beautiful to look at and, for the most part, easy on the ears. However -- this may be "Ally McBeal" backlash speaking -- Flockhart invokes many of her television counterpart's insecure mannerisms as the spurned Helena. She also seems uncomfortable with the words, affecting a quasi-British accent.
   Cinematically, Hoffman has respected the play's language, holding steady on the actors' faces as they speak. There are no flashy cuts, for example, a la Baz Luhrmann's version of "Romeo and Juliet." Hoffman uses special effects only occasionally to juice up the fairies' world, particularly in the antics of Puck ("The Impostors'" Stanley Tucci), Oberon's impish go-between. Otherwise, this "Midsummer" is rendered much like a stage production (one with a huge glitter budget), with an almost deliberate artifice. The fairy kingdom looks enchantingly like a Victorian illustration come to life.    Starring Michelle Pfieffer, Kevin Kline and Calista Flockhart. Directed and written by Michael Hoffman. Produced by Leslie Urdang and Michael Hoffman. A Fox Searchlight release. Romantic comedy. Rated PG-13 for sensuality and nudity. Running time: 115 min.
Tags: Shakespeare, Michael Hoffman, adaptation, Kevin Kline, Sophie Marceau, Rupert Everett, Michelle Pfeiffer, Italy, Calista Flockhart, Leslie Urdang, romance

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