Main cast: Rupert Everett (Oberon), Michelle Pfeiffer (Titania), Calista Flockhart (Helena), Dominic West (Lysander), Anna Friel (Hermia), Christian Bale (Demetrius), Kevin Kline (Bottom) and Stanley Tucci (Puck/Robin)
Director: Michael Hoffman
In the hands of a right director, William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream can be a Bacchanalian feast of sensual delights. After all, we have lusty faerie folks, we have two couples of young, impetus lovers in full bloom of youth, and all sorts of tantalizing shenanigans 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. This one ends 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 weaves them all into a comedy of errors. Faerie rulers King Oberon and Queen Titania 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 Titania 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 Titania. 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 Titania sees. Oh boy.
There are many elements in this story that could make Freud dance in glee. I’ve read treatises charging the play 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 lacklusterly, 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 mischievous, 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 Flockhart as Helena who is the most memorable character. 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 play to the 19th century, it dares not take any risks to explore the interactions and motivations of its characters.