A Midsummer Night's Dream Review

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

is one of the lightest of Shakespeare’s plays and surely the slightest in terms of content, yet with good direction and the right cast, there is a lot of enjoyment and playfulness that can be brought out of it. Michael Hoffman’s 1999 version with an all-star cast however is uninspired, straightforward and takes little chances with characters and casting.

In the village of Monte Athena, Italy, Egeus (a wonderfully angry Bernard Hill) petitions Grand Duke Theseus to invoke the law that a daughter must marry the man chosen by her father or face death – a fairly strict sentence that can be reduced on appeal to a life sentence in a convent. Hermia (Anna Friel) however does not love Demetrius (Christian Bale), but Lysander (Dominic West) and they decide to run away together. Demetrius tries to find them and is followed by Helena (Calista Flockhart) who is in love with Demetrius herself.

They all end up in the enchanted woods where the faerie queen Titania (Michelle Pfeiffer) and faerie king Oberon (Rupert Everett) are not on good terms with each other. Oberon has his messenger and sidekick, Puck (Stanley Tucci) retrieve a flower impregnated with a love potion from the arrow of Eros to try to sort matters out with Titania and the people who are wandering through the woods and have a little fun while he is at it. Puck gets things wrong and also manages to involve a group of amateur actors who are rehearsing in the woods, turning the hammy actor Nick Bottom (Kevin Kline) into an ass and having Titania fall in love with him. All this mess has to be sorted out before the wedding of Theseus.

This is a very average and unimaginative production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Taking inspiration perhaps from Kenneth Branagh's Much Ado About Nothing, the setting for the action is changed from Athens to Italy and updated to the nineteenth century – neither of which is a problem, but there seems to be very little reason for doing so. Much has been made of the beautiful Tuscan scenery, but there is really little of it to be seen, the majority of the film taking place in the luscious, but obviously very fake forest sets of Rome’s Cinecittá studios. The 19th century Italian setting however at least allows for a wonderful selection of Italian opera arias from Bellini, Rossini, Donizetti, Verdi and much use is made of the ever faithful Intermezzo from Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana.

The casting and performances also contribute little of note to the film. By and large the British actors perform well, but the Americans, with the possible exception of Kline and Tucci, appear to have no feel for the material whatsoever. Calista Flockhart (Ally McBeal) displays her limited acting range delivering her lines as if reciting a limerick, while Michelle Pfeiffer seems to have no idea what the lines mean, her eyes blank as she recites the verse. Rupert Everett breezes through his part without really making much of an effort and consequently makes little impact. Anna Friel plays Hermia very well although her intonation is not always good and she occasionally rushes through her lines reducing their effectiveness. Only one or two of the casting decisions give the film a certain interest. While the remainder of the cast play it fairly straight, Kevin Kline’s enthusiastic performance provides an interesting take on Bottom and Stanley Tucci is unexpectedly well-suited to the role of the mischievous Puck.

The DVDPresented in anamorphic 2.35:1, the picture is clear, bright, colourful and deep, as it should be for this playful drama. The print however is not quite as sharp as it should be and a fine grain can be seen if you pause and look for it. Otherwise, apart from only one or two white dust spots, there is little to complain about with the picture. A Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is appropriately used, mainly centre speaker with occasional use of front speakers and rare use of rears or sub. There are no extras on the DVD at all, not even a trailer. English subtitles for hard of hearing are available and useful for following badly recited verse, but I couldn’t switch these on ‘on the fly’, having to return to the main menu to change subtitle selections.

This is a fairly average effort all around then. An unexceptional, but not a bad interpretation of the play and a good quality but barebone DVD release.

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