Film Review: A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1999)

“A part of love as dreams, sighs, wishes, and tears”

Perhaps taking influence from the roaring success of Kenneth Branagh’s sun-soaked Much Ado About Nothing, Michael Hoffman saw Hollywood’s return to Shakespeare transplant A Midsummer Night’s Dream to a luscious nineteenth century Tuscan setting. So Athens becomes the town of Monte Athena and the soundtrack is suffused with the strains of Verdi, Donizetti and Bellini but in many other respects, it’s a fairly traditional interpretation – a plethora of bicycles aside.

And though it might not seem that big of a deal, it is indicative of Hoffman’s initial approach to tinker where tinkering is not needed. So the heart sinks as the lovers’ comic business is rough-handled onto two wheels and Nick Bottom gains a (mute) wife, but spirits soon rise again as the film begins to trust the text and just enjoy itself. Calista Flockhart proves a revelation as a genuinely emotionally bruised Helena, chasing Christian Bale’s disinterested Demetrius and fending off Dominic West’s magically enhanced interest, much to Anna Friel’s Hermia’s chagrin.

That said, there is a rather crucial lack of chemistry elsewhere. Michelle Pfeiffer’s Titania looks and sounds ravishing but there’s little spark with Rupert Everett’s louche Oberon, no sexuality at all, and scant connection emerges with Kevin Kline’s Bottom either. The least said about David Strathairn’s Theseus the better as though his performance is absolutely fine, it belongs in an entirely different film altogether. And much as I like Stanley Tucci, his Puck never really took flight for me.

So it’s left to the Rude Mechanicals to save the day and that they come close to doing. Kline is hammy beyond belief but pretty much pulls it off, especially in the slightly melancholy notes that come when he realises he’s being laughed at. But the real plaudits go to Sam Rockwell’s Francis Flute, who delivers an absolutely inspired take on Thisbe that makes me wish every single theatrical production I see did it this way too, a gorgeously unexpected grace note of real emotion.

Far from the definitive Dream, it is still considerably better than one might have expected. 

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