Not to be confused with all those other Midsummer Night’s Dreams out there, William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is an adaptation of, you guessed it, William Shakespeare’s beloved comedy. Boasting a star-studded cast, Michael Hoffman’s adaptation is mostly faithful to the original text…but his strange departures will leave you wondering.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream tells the tale of four young lovers: Hermia (Anna Friel), Demetrius (Christian Bale), Helena (Calista Flockheart) and Lysander (Dominic West). Lysander and Hermia are madly in love, but Hermia is betrothed to Demetrius, who is smitten with her. Meanwhile, Helena pines unrequitedly for the love of Demetrius.
The four lovers unwittingly find themselves one night in a magical forest, home of the feuding king and queen of fairies: Oberon (Rupert Everett) and Titania (Michelle Pfieffer). Oberon schemes with his fairy underling, Puck (Stanley Tucci), to tamper with the heart of not only Titania, but of the four lovers as well.
To add to the confusion, a group of amateur players is also using the forest as a practice ground for their production of Pyramus and Thisbe. Led by the weaver Bottom (Kevin Kline), the troupe is about to become enmeshed in a mischievous practical joke from Puck.
Apparently for a change of pace, Michael Hoffman has changed the setting of A Midsummer Night’s Dream from Ancient Greece to 1900s Tuscany. This makes the presence of Theseus (David Strathairn) and his amazon queen Hippolyta (Sophie Marceau) somewhat odd, but the film doesn’t give their presence a second thought. Perhaps he thought it would be a brilliant cinematic moment to intermingle the fairy world with such newfangled inventions as the bicycle and phonograph. He was wrong. The juxtaposition distracts rather than enhancing.
The lovers in A Midsummer Night’s Dream get the short end of the stick. They’re more mundane than the fairy denizens of the play, and much less amusing than the players. Despite the fact that the parts are virtually interchangeable, the four actors (Friel, Bale, Flockheart and West) do their best to imbue the characters with a hint of uniqueness.
But things certainly fare much better in the other roles of the play. Kevin Kline makes a superb Bottom, amiable, charming and blissfully accepting of the unusual world around him. Michelle Pfieffer is simply radiant as Titania. And Rupert Everett and Stanley Tucci seem to enjoy their role as they unleash the film’s magical mayhem.
Narratively, the Act V performance of Pyramus and Thisbe has always seemed like an unnecessary coda. However, performed with gusto by Kevin Kline and his coterie of bungling players, the sequence becomes the comic high point of the film.
For Shakespeare purists, this latest film adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is far from perfect. But, in the long run, it achieves Shakespeare’s lofty intentions: to amuse the masses.