Published May 1, 1999
The best moment in the new movie-version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, directed by Michael Hoffman, comes as Bottom (Kevin Kline) in the form of an ass is transported to the bower of Titania, the Fairy Queen (Michelle Pfeiffer), who has fallen in love with him (as the Shakespeareans among you will remember) because of a magic potion squeezed in her eyes by the mischievous Puck (Stanley Tucci). There he finds, among the fairy folk, an old, 1900s vintage phonograph and records that we have previously seen the fairies playing with uncomprehendingly. Suddenly the otherwise unprepossessing Bottom puts a record on the turntable and period Italian operatic music (among the composers represented at one time or another on the soundtrack are Verdi, Donizetti, Bellini and Rossini) comes flooding out of the contraption. The fairies are all astounded. Like Titania and by means almost as magical they are suddenly overwhelmed with the beauty mastered by this “rude mechanical” who would otherwise have seemed so much beneath their notice.
It is a new and clever way to suggest what has long been recognized as one of the elements of Shakespeare’s play, which is the hopeful lament for an old world dying and new one being born. One reason why so many Shakespearean adaptations, both on film and on stage, are set around the turn-of-the-century—for example, Trevor Nunn’s lovely film of Twelfth Night of a couple of years ago—is that it is the nearest analogue, recognizable to us, for the transitional period, when the plays were written, between the “medieval” era and what is loosely called the “Renaissance.” So magic gives way to science and romance to scholarship, but along with the old ways and the old days there disappear those wonderful autochthones, the fairies, belief in which somehow seems to have survived in attenuated form down to the present day. Moving the play forward in time by three centuries allows Bottom to appear as a representative of industrial “capitalism” and technological progress, which has likewise conferred on us its blessings at a certain cost in terms of our closeness to wild and romantic nature.
But the film suffers from the besetting sin of movie adaptations of Shakespeare, which is its makers’ all-but irresistible urge to tart up the glorious language with all kinds of visual effects that can only diminish our sense of the Shakespearean achievement. Thus although we may be doubtfully entertained by the spectacle of Hermia (Anna Friel) and Helena (Callista Flockhart) mud-wrestling, we cannot help feeling that the comedy of it is a little too emphatically of our own times to fit with this magic world of firefly-fairies into which we thought we were being invited. Likewise, there is too much the hint of a postmodern joke to the delivery by Miss Flockhart, known to everyone as TV’s “Ally McBeal” and coached to a fare-thee-well for this part, of a couplet like: “We [i.e. women] cannot fight for love, as men may do/We should be wooed, and were not made to woo.”
At least the words are understandable, which others from her mouth were unfortunately not. I also thought that David Strathairn, though he is usually a fine actor, made a feeble Theseus and that the excellent Mr Tucci was badly miscast as Puck. Complete with tiny horns and Spock ears, he seemed to me rather annoying than charming in the role, and managed to put little or no vitality or inspiration into it. A big, lumbering sort of guy, he might have done far better as one of the mechanicals, and surely someone a bit more sprightly—someone who might almost have been believed capable of putting a girdle round the earth in 40 minutes—would have looked more comic than he does attempting the task on a bicycle. Tucci looks as if he belongs on the bicycle, and having him come riding in, as he does on another occasion, on a gigantic tortoise just seems bizarre.
Against these failures must be set excellent performances by Mr Kline, Miss Pfeiffer and Miss Friel as well as Rupert Everett as Oberon, Christian Bale and Dominic West as Demetrius and Lysander, and the whole company of mechanicals, led by a wonderfully hangdog Roger Rees in the role of Peter Quince. Particularly to be commended are Gregory Jbara as Snug the Joiner.and Sam Rockwell as Flute the Bellows Mender, both of whom manage to portray good-natured stupidity without ever seeming to be condescending. The test, I guess, of whether such an adaptation can be judged to be successful is if something of the language survives and therefore if the whole of the magnificent original has not been spoiled by things patently unShakespearean. In the parts of the film devoted to these characters, as in its Shakespearean evocation of period, it passes the test.