(director/writer: Michael Hoffman; cinematographer: Oliver Stapleton; editor: Garth Craven; cast: Kevin Kline (Nick Bottom), Michelle Pfeiffer (Titania), Rupert Everett (Oberon), Stanley Tucci (Puck), Calista Flockhart (Helena), Anna Friel (Hermia), Christian Bale (Demetrius), Dominic West (Lysander), David Strathairn (Theuseus), SophieMarceau (Hippolyta), Roger Rees (Peter Quince), Max Wright (Robin Starveling), Gregory Jbara (Snug), Bill Irwin (Tom Snout), Sam Rockwell (Francis Flute), Bernard Hill (Egeus); Runtime: 116; Twentieth Century Fox; 1999-It./UK)

The director made a lot of odd choices in this film that take away somewhat from the magical feeling of the play…

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Shakespeare’s lightweight farce is transported from 16th century Greece to 19th century Tuscany (there are now bicycles with headlights to shine in the night and wonderful operatic interludes). The plot revolves around the upcoming wedding of Duke Theseus (David Strathairn) and Hippolyta (Sophie Marceau). Problems arise when a forced marriage between Hermia (Friel) and Demetrius (Bale) is proposed by Hermia’s father. Hermia is in love with Lysander (West) and Helena (Calista) is madly in love with Demetrius. Another subplot has to do with the group of would-be thespians who are asked to perform at the duke’s wedding, led by the weaver Nick Bottom (Kline). His over-the-top performance is amusingly brilliant, as when he turns into an ass and woos a beautiful queen; and, when he emotes from that junior high school type of play “Pyramus and Thisby,” that he is asked to perform at the wedding. Bottom’s ends up stealing the film with his energetic comical rendition of a buffoon. This character has always been considered one of Shakespeare’s best comedy roles.

The fun and heart of the story takes place with one overnight trip into the woods, where the unrelenting lovers travel to in their planned elopement. The fun part begins when these mortals run unbeknownst to them into the ever-playful Puck (Tucci), the servant of Oberon, who sprinkles into their eyes a love potion that lures them into loving the first person they see. Love, in this fairyland setting, has more to do with chance than anything else since it is blind. The mix-ups that follow Puck’s interference, create new difficulties and allow for the lovers to be manipulated and mismatched by Puck’s magic. He even fools the beautiful Fairy Queen Titania (Pfeiffer) into falling in love with the transformed Bottom, now appearing as an ass, even though her true love is the handsome Fairy King Oberon (Rupert).

Shakespeare’s magic wasn’t working; and, I think that was because an hour or so of the play’s dialogue was lopped off, making this three hour play into a two hour movie. The consequences are that the characters couldn’t be fully developed; in fact, the film had a flatness to it that belied how good its lush cinematography made it look. Instead of character development, we got rolls in the mud to convey the deep feelings of how the young lovers felt about the confusion Puck’s love potions had on them. To dumb down Shakespeare even further, there were times when the director used obvious facial gestures by the characters to let us in on how to react to what they were doing. This is sort of like the canned responses for those TV shows, where a sign is held up to let the audience know when to applaud.

What was eloquent, that made it a passable viewing experience, was due to the superb cast who were a mixture of Shakespearean actors; such as, Anna Friel, Christian Bale, and Dominic West, and the feisty non Shakespearean actors, Calista Flockhart, Stanley Tucci, Rupert Everett and Michelle Pfeiffer. Then there was the stirring use of Verdi’s greatest operatic hits throughout the film, which fitted conveniently in with the director’s 19th century Italian theme.

This is a clever film; it is much better than the scores of amateur stage productions that continually flood the country. But the director made a lot of odd choices in this film that take away somewhat from the magical feeling of the play and make it seem artificial, or more of a commercial venture than it should be. There was no artistic reason to be in 19th century Italy, except for its rich landscapes and colorful costumes and beautiful villas shown. Also, the flatness and clumsiness of the fairyland scenes when juxtaposed against the lively actor’s troupe made this film seem uneven, even begging us to utter with conviction the bard’s choice words: “What fools these mortals be.”

REVIEWED ON 6/25/99 GRADE: C    https://dennisschwartzreviews.com/

Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”