Disenchanted forest

Too many weak performances -- and no, not including Calista's -- prevent Michael Hoffman's opulent "A Midsummer Night's Dream" from being more than a mildly pleasurable exercise in ornamentation.

Published May 14, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Michael Hoffman's adaptation of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" is a lunatic
little thing, a frolic replete with magical frills and furbelows. Titania,
queen of the fairies, has a feather-lined bed shaped like a giant walnut
shell, suspended high above the ground by vines. Puck comes riding along
the forest floor, majestically, on the back of a giant turtle, like a
princess in the Rose Parade. Edwardian-watercolor fairies conspire and
cavort everywhere you look. The throne of Oberon, the fairy king, is
flanked by living sphinx women -- they're like the New York Public Library
lions with breasts.

It's nutty all right -- and yet, somehow, not crazy enough by half. Of all
Shakespeare's comedies, "A Midsummer Night's Dream" is the one that most
demands grand, loopy gestures, and on the basis of Hoffman's lavish and strange
1995 picture, "Restoration," you'd think he would be the guy to
deliver them. Magical potions, mix-and-match lovers, daughters made to
suffer as the result of unreasonable patriarchal demands, forest-dwelling
fairies mixing it up with mortals in the love department: What more could
you want? But Hoffman's "Dream" never quite takes wing as it
should. Part of the problem is that we too often feel cued into the
wondrousness of it all. There's so much chiffon, exotic flora and glittery
skin makeup that you almost don't know where to look, and it gives the
movie a slightly cluttered feel.

Yet, almost paradoxically, you end up wishing for more excess, not less.
Hoffman stops well short of total absurdity, which comes
off as a failure of nerve, especially if you're familiar with the twittering
insanity and breathtaking luminescence of Max Reinhardt's 1935 adaptation,
which represents a triumph of a director's moonstruck lunacy over mostly
wooden acting (James Cagney as Bottom and Joe E. Brown as Flute are two of the
most notable exceptions). Hoffman's jumble of imagery would be more
effective if it went right over the top with no apology, and it might also
have masked some of the unevenness of his cast. As it is, you're made to
feel as if you're lurching into the story, instead of being mystically
drawn into it.

Hoffman has moved the action of the play from ancient Athens to late
19th century Tuscany, and for aesthetic reasons alone, it's an inspired
choice: The marble villas, the delicately pointed trees, the verdant hills
that roll and curve like a reclining nude make for an irresistible setting.
The change in time period works well, too. Recent conveniences and
amusements, like Victrolas and bicycles, provide diversion for fairies and
humans alike. (The sight of Stanley Tucci as Puck, wobbling along on a
bicycle he's just found, is good for at least a giggle.)

And it doesn't hurt that Hoffman has some incredible actors to work with.
Michelle Pfeiffer is a pleasingly languorous Titania -- her eyes sparkle
almost as vividly as the jewels in her hair. She has a lush, lazy kind of
sensuality, particularly in her scenes with Kevin Kline as Bottom -- the
actor whose face is transformed into a donkey's by the shenanigans of Puck,
and with whom Titania, also under one of Puck's spells, falls in love.
Rupert Everett makes for an Adonis-like Oberon, and he's especially
appealing in his scenes with Titania, murmuring seashell secrets into her
ear or gently nuzzling her cheek. Everett gives Oberon's moments with
Titania a gently rippling eroticism -- a suggestion that he needn't always
be typecast as the "gay friend" (as in "My Best Friend's Wedding," where his performance was the only thing worth watching), or, for that matter, as
the "gay anything." I'd love to see Rupert Everett cast as the lead in a romantic
comedy, against either a man or a woman. It would be a shame to
sacrifice so much charm and sly good timing at the altar of sexual politics.

Hoffman has also altered the play slightly in other ways. He gives Bottom a
disapproving wife, for example, to suggest that for all Bottom's cheek and
bravado, there's also something a little beaten down about him. The change
doesn't make much sense at first (the wife has no lines), and it seems like
a bald contrivance. But Kline ultimately makes the alteration work. When he
awakes from his "dream" of being loved by Titania, his face registers both
the memory of redolent bliss and a creeping, unavoidable sadness --
recognition that his experience has already been half-erased just by
waking. Of all the actors, he's the most comfortable with the language: His
lines never sound forced or stagy. When he muses on the song that might
later be written about his experience -- "It will be called Bottom's Dream
-- because it has no bottom!" -- he's only being half-funny. He's still so
drunk with the experience that it is as if he's just dived back to
the surface of a bottomless cup.

But Calista Flockhart as Helena, the "also-ran" who's hopelessly in love
with Demetrius -- who's hopelessly in love with Hermia, who's hopelessly in
love with Lysander but is being forced by her father to wed Demetrius -- is
most charming of all. I've never been a fan of "Ally McBeal": I'm bored by
the litany of gags surrounding what are alleged to be everywoman's
insecurities, and I could never understand why I was supposed to believe in
McBeal as a crackerjack lawyer when all I ever saw her do was approach the
judge's bench with sloped shoulders and lowered chin. But Flockhart is
something else again as Helena. With her delicate bone structure and
impossibly wide-open eyes, she could come off as just another moppet who
begs, "Love me!" But Flockhart craftily turns her physical delicacy into a
strength. She's like a tiny, strong-willed forest creature, so persistent
in her pursuit of love that her doubts about being lovable are simply
inconsequential: She's going to conjure love for herself by sheer will, and
so she does. It's a performance that accounts for the insecurities of a
woman in love without making them the center of the story -- and without
turning them into a puddle of melted Hdagen-Dazs or dressing them up in cuddly PJs.

It's a shame that such enjoyable -- and, for Shakespeare, pleasantly casual
-- performances can't keep "A Midsummer Night's Dream" from
wobbling on its axis. But there are so many weak actors interspersed with
the good ones that the movie's mood keeps getting broken: Anna Friel is a
pouty, irritating Hermia (how she gets two guys to fall for her is
anybody's guess), and Dominic West a watery Lysander. Even David
Straithairn, generally a fine actor, is dead on his feet as Theseus.
Hoffman may be good with individual actors (or he may be lucky enough to
have cast so many with good instincts), but he just doesn't know how to
work the ensemble as a whole. "A Midsummer Night's Dream" is pretty to look
at, a mild amusement with an earnest dose of movie spectacle thrown in. But
its charms don't penetrate as deeply as they should -- they linger around
the fringe as a well-meaning decoration. This is a magic forest you just can't get lost in.

By Stephanie Zacharek

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

MORE FROM Stephanie Zacharek

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