In William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a striding, expansive confidence is at work behind every move of the giddy soap opera, as ill-matched and ill-starred couples and creatures fall into an erotic swoon to their eventual romantic betterment, a local peer gets married, and oafs attempt to put on a play. The farce, Shakespeare’s most ravishing and uncorseted, may be topsy-turvy, but the hand that keeps the boiling pot astir knows just where every peevish, love-starved, havoc-wreaking character is going and by what glitter-strewn circuitous route he or she or it shall arrive. In Michael Hoffman’s William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the stirring hand seems just as surprised as the characters it’s supposedly guiding that they end up anywhere at all. The play and its charms being virtually indestructible, however, Hoffman’s languorous permissiveness adds a certain amateurish sweetnessand some slow minutes.
This extravagant, free-flowing adaptation seems to have been meticulously put together long before filming, with every ounce of loving care spent on planning, design, and casting, leaving none left over for the actual assembly. Every pebble on the ground and chicken for sale in the market for the film’s opening scenes conveys a dusty, peasantish existence in the turn-of-the-century Italian town of Monte Athena, the time and place to which this Midsummer has been transplanted from ancient Athens proper. Little tricks and tropes of the chosen time periodold-fashioned bicycles, gramophone hornsseem to have been selected for their antique eccentricity in the sturdy human world and for how incongruously they’ll play in Fairyland. There’s a kernel of a philosophical argument inherent in the setting and props about the ascendancy of romantic love within a culture of political connubial alliances, ushered in by the technology, rudimentary as it is, of the next century. But neither the hills of Italy nor the period setting brings enlightenment to the story, and the bikes and Victrolas are dealt with unimaginatively, as props but not symbols. Because Hoffman doesn’t make his setting reflect upon the story’s machinationshe wrote as well as directedit seems brutal and grotesque that Hermia (Anna Friel) should still be threatened with death for loving the wrong man, in this case Lysander (Dominic West).
Nevertheless, the threat of execution doesn’t feel quite real, as indeed nothing in this dreamlike land should. Hermia’s sticky situation is only one of the many plots that kick off the intricate, farcical, gossamer spider’s web of adventures. Her father wants her to wed Demetrius (Christian Bale), but if he is uninterested in Hermia, he is downright loathing toward Helena (Calista Flockhart), who loves him with a cringe-inducing but recognizable puppylike persistence. Meanwhile, the Duke, Theseus (David Strathairn), is about to marry demure and wise Hippolyta (Sophie Marceau), and a ragtag band of players (including Max Wright, Sam Rockwell, Bill Irwin, and Roger Rees) has chosen the antique tragedy of Pyramus and Thisbe with which to entertain the couple at the wedding banquet. Just behind the thin veil between worlds, the king and queen of the fairies are having a tiffTitania (Michelle Pfeiffer) and Oberon (Rupert Everett) have separated over ownership of an exotic young pageboy, and the mischievous but not always competent sprite Puck (Stanley Tucci, with flagrantly pasted-on horns) negotiates between them.
A wonderful, silly, besotted sort of zaniness ensues, as Puck botches up scheme after scheme to unite the human lovers, lost in Fairyland, into the proper pairings and succeeds in carrying out Oberon’s malicious wish that his estranged queen make a raving fool of herself over “some vile thing.” That vile thing is Kevin Kline as Nick Bottom, a weaver by trade and the hammiest member of the acting troupe, who has the misfortune to be transformed into a braying, idiotic, donkey-headed beast and the good luck to be loved by the literally enchanted Titania. Both Kline and Pfeiffer are magnificent in their roles; Titania’s sensual tenderness and rapt adoration for the ridiculous hairy figure never quite negate the elegance of her slender limbs and elfin, turned-up smile. Kline plays his hapless Bottom not as a straight boor but a not very vain man with enough intelligence to figure out he’s lucked into something amazing but not enough to figure out how it happened.
The art direction is magical and sparkling, deliberately stagy so that the fake, tangible look of all those blossom-bedecked ropes and pulleys throws into highlight the intangibilities of the lovers’ feelings. While the tone is beautifully consistent, the pace and acting styles are not. Hoffman lets the actors run amok, the broad mugging of the players glaring against Strathairn and Marceau’s refined sweep, while the fairies languish in boneless reverie and the awkward human lovers crash and sprint and tumble into mud pits. The script fiddles with the text noticeablywhich seems intrusive and unnecessary, especially considering that, had Hoffman wanted to shape the play for populist consumption, he could have pared some of the soggy bits. The film seems to end at the lovers’ awakening, but Hoffman insists on carrying doggedly on into the players’ hilarious but extended performance of Pyramus and Thisbe for the bemused newlyweds. Because of the movie’s jerky pace, which expands and contracts unpredictably, we are not prepared for this lengthy codaor for the film’s surprise announcement that Bottom is the story’s moral heart.
Midsummer is a bawdy, earthy story; it equates love with sex, and sex with satisfaction, and argues that all love is of value whether the source of attraction is organic or chemical, so long as the attraction is mutual. Its glamorous aesthetic potential and rock-solid mechanics have inspired artists great and mediocre, but most adaptations, even Balanchine’s ballet and the overrated Max Reinhardt film, err on the side of daintinessonly Henry Purcell’s squabbling fairies and pompous mortals capture Shakespeare’s chaotic universe, in which love is at odds with dignity. Hoffman, too, applies more fig leaves than necessary to the text, but the glorious look of the thing, the fearless and delighted actors, and the indestructible tale of two worlds ruled by love receive ravishing treatment. Hoffman’s faults are faults of generosityhe lets distracting or time-consuming indulgences eat up the screen; no one is stintedand after he’s whipped up such a glorious whirlwind of fairy dust to swirl before the audience, it seems churlish to complain that there’ll be a lot of plastic glitter to sweep up later. CP