A Midsummer Night's Dream
Rating -

Comedy (US); 1999; Rated PG-13; 102 Minutes

Rupert Everett:
Michele Pfeiffer: Titania
Stanley Tucci: Robin Goodfellow, or 'Puck'
Calista Flockhart: Helena
Dominic West: Lysander
Anna Friel: Hermia
Christian Bale: Demetrius
Kevin Kline: Nick Bottom

Produced by Michael Hoffman, Arnon Milchan, Leslie Urdang and Ann Wingate; Directed and screenwritten by Michael Hoffman; based on the play "A Midsummer Night's Dream" by William Shakespeare

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Written by DAVID KEYES

"If we shadows have offended,
Think but this and all is mended,
That you have but slumbered here,
When these visions did appear."

-Verse from Puck's Act V speech of "A Midsummer Night's Dream"

William Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" has always been one of the poet's most outrageous plays, but Michael Hoffman, the director of this modern film adaptation, turns it into something that. not even the bard could. Will's story was fun and enchanting, yes, but far from perfect. Hoffman shows us that he is capable of being more than just a man behind the camera, because he brings to the foreground of the story beauty and elegance. He has turned this timeless story into a masterpiece.

I'm not being indulgent when I praise his approach to the material. There have been numerous occasions when Shakespeare's plays fall short of becoming what we so desperately want them to be, and there have been other occasions when filmmakers cut loose a little and turn those plays into great movies. There is, for instance, Franco Zeffirelli's version of "The Taming Of The Shrew." The story is essentially overrated, and yet it became one of the best films ever made. It's greatness was achieved by the indirect approach Zeffirelli made on the material. Without changing much of the plot, he gave the play a unique look, with a cast that remains one of the greatest ensembles in cinema history.

Such a treatment for Shakespeare has been passed down through time, in which filmmakers have used his plays as a backdrop for their own cinematic ambition. Here, Hoffman gives us the characters that seem nostalgic to us after reading, or seeing, the play, and adds an extra layer onto them with beautiful costumes, elegant scenarios and a standout cast. They are the sweet ingredients of a magical recipe, and what holds it all together is the familiar, fun story, which tells the tale of four lovers who become the experiments of mistaken identity, magic potions, fairies, and several other silly things.

Egeus, father to Hermia, has betrothed his daughter to Demetrius, a man who in turn loves her with all his heart, and is determined not to let Hermia's true love, Lysander, from inheriting his bride. Then Hermia and Lysander plot to run away together to avoid this marriage, and even possible death. They share their plot with Helena, a close friend, who unfolds on-stage her own attraction to Demetrius. She then storms out to inform him of what Hermia and Lysander are doing, which will benefit Helena later, as she suspects that her decision to reveal this plan to Demetrius will show him how much she loves him.

Then, of course, we meet the fairies. Oberon (Rupert Everett) and Titania (Michele Pfeiffer) are king and queen of this charming race, but that does not prevent them from feuding over an Indian boy Titania cares for. Returning home and falling asleep, Oberon discusses a plot with his servant, Robin Goodfellow (or 'Puck'), to apply a nectar from a forest flower to his queen's eyes so that, when she awakes, she shall fall in love with the first ugly creature that catches her eye. Continuing with this plan, the king hears the accounts of the four lovers as they become separated from each other in the forest. He furthers his orders to Puck, who is instructed to apply this nectar to Demetrius, so that he can fall in love with Helena, and all will be solved. But the plan is distracted when Puck gets the men confused, and applies the nectar to Lysander's eyes. He then exits the scene ("Awake when I am gone, for I must now to Oberon"), and Lysander, as you probably know, falls in love with Helena at first sight. All of these mixed-up love potions create a chemistry between the four lovers that is one of the best I've seen on screen. After Puck's mistakes have been corrected, and the right lovers fall in love with the people they are supposed to, the movie then moves on to that notoriously hilarious act when several local tradesmen put on a performance of the play "Pyramus and Thisbe" for their duke and the lovers. As we can imagine, the performance is ridiculous and clumsy, allowing the audience to mock the production. The performance leads up to a marvelous conclusion, of which Puck gives us his wonderful speech, asking the audience to think of the whole movie "as merely a dream."

In the actual story, Puck (or Robin Goodfellow, more appropriately) plays the most important role, because he is the carrier of this flower nectar which transforms all the 'love cycles' of the four lovers. Even more importantly, his antics through the fairy forest kept us entertained even through some of the most dull parts. Here, Stanley Tucci does his best to bring the character to screen life. But the movie, unlike the play, really belongs to Nick Bottom, the weaver, who is played so well by Kevin Kline, that it was as if he was made for the role. Bottom, as you might recall, went deep into the forest with his pals to practice their production of "Pyramus and Thisbe," the play they planned to put on for Theseus, the duke, and his new bride, Hippolyta. He exited, and then on cue, entered the scene with long ears, whiskers and buck teeth. The fairy king and Puck had given him the head of an ass, which later was revealed as part of a plan against Oberon's wife, Titania. Upon hearing his voice, she awakens and, under the spell of the flower, falls in love with the 'donkey man.' In these scenes, Kevin Kline enriches the screen with his presence as a gentle weaver, and then is followed by great passion of Michelle Pfeiffer's performance. These two, may it be in the near future, deserve Academy Awards.

If the story and dialogue help capture the enchanting flavor, so does the setting. Hoffman takes the story into a new but appropriate scenario--19th century Tuscany, to be precise--which looks odd for a Shakespearean work, but is effectively staged. Unlike most directors, who underscore Shakespeare's language and story in front of 'over-modern' scenarios ("Romeo + Juliet" is the #1 example), he is careful to balance things out; the modernizations aren't too modern, and his changes to the original story are minor and almost unnoticeable. A really good movie maker takes a classic story and, if changes are necessary, modifies it in a way that will best please a movie-goeing audience. Those who do not like the written work of William Shakespeare might enjoy the movie because it tells us the story using visuals, sets, and design that you could not possible imagine when written down on paper.

Towards the closing of the movie, I was reminded of how these plays are more than just words scribbled on paper and acted by people reading off of it. Shakespeare is a transcending phenomenon, shaping the way people think about poetry and literature, and inspiring the movie makers who enjoy revisiting timeless tales for the benefit of finding a movie-goeing audience. If the cinema is divided by literature and art, then "A Midsummer Night's Dream" is the dividing line between those two virtues.

Of all contemporary Shakespeare movies, this one rises above the entire crowd. One might even say that it is better than "Twelfth Night," Kenneth Brannagh's three movies ("Henry V," "Hamlet" and "Much Ado About Nothing,"), Richard Loncrane's "Richard III," and even Oliver Parker's "Othello." Heck, I like it even more than John Madden's charming comedy "Shakespeare In Love," which recently won the Best Picture Oscar for taking us to the root of all of Shakespeare's words and inspirations. Is that saying much? I'd like to think so. Most of the movies listed above are terrific films, if not masterworks.

But perhaps this one is more special because it does not depend as much on the contemporary atmosphere as it does with the classic story. "A Midsummer Night's Dream" is not so much a movie as it is a wonderful dream. The movie adds delicate beauty to what we already consider a rollicking Shakespearean comedy.

1999, David Keyes, Cinemaphile.org. Please e-mail the author here if the above review contains any spelling or grammar mistakes.
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