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Fruitless mediocrity

By Vladimir Zelevinsky

Directed by Michael Hoffman

Written by Michael Hoffman, based on the play by William Shakespeare

With Kevin Kline, Michelle Pfeiffer, Rupert Everett, Stanley Tucci, Calista Flockhart, Anna Friel, Dominic West, Christian Bale, David Strathairn.

Shakespeare is all the rage -- now he even has an Oscar, and what makes money always starts people jumping on the bandwagon. Even Kenneth Branagh, who arguably has started the current Shakespeare renaissance with his Henry V in 1989, is currently filming Loves Labor Lost as a musical with Alicia Silverstone and Matthew Lillard (I don’t know about you, but I’m looking forward to this project with an even mixture of excitement and dread).

Anyway, what we have here is a film version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. This seems like a safe bet: take a respected director Michael Hoffman (One Fine Day, Restoration), a star-studded cast, and a wonderful play. The result is, unfortunately, a mess, which wavers all the way between pathos and bathos, with some splendid moments of insight diluted by long stretches of mediocrity, and ending up being a pileup of art direction in a vain search for a movie.

Shakespeare’s story concerns two pairs of lovers (here, they are played by Calista Flockhart, Anna Friel, Dominic West, and Christian Bale), who, trying to sort out their tangled relationship, get lost in a forest during a midsummer’s night. There, they unwittingly become the playthings of the fairy sprite Puck (Stanley Tucci) and his King Oberon (Rupert Everett), who is trying to fix his own marriage to Fairy Queen Titania (Michelle Pfeiffer). Mixed into all of this are a bunch of mediocre amateur actors--most notably Nick Bottom (Kevin Kline)--who, looking for a big acting break, are also wandering in the woods on the same night. Add some magic and moonlight and fog and love potions, and mix everything up, and --

No, no, please don’t mix everything up that much. Why on earth would you move the action from ancient Greece to 19th century Italy? This adds only two things to the film: the opportunity to use all the grand Italian opera arias on the soundtrack (usually effective), and the chance to have half of the characters ride around on the bicycles (usually pointless). On the other hand, this makes a mess out of Shakespeare’s world, turning into confusion all those Greek names, references to Athens, and some curious legal circumstances, such as the right of a father to kill his adult daughter for refusing to marry the man he picked.

This takes a lot of time to get used to. And when the initial shock wears off, a kind of blunt and bland apathy sets in. This is mostly due to the fact that this Dream doesn’t seem to be directed at all: the art direction is plentiful but not presented well on the screen, resulting in a startingly uncontrolled mise-en-scene; the pacing is problemmatic; and the acting -- from all the usually excellent actors -- is poor. With two near-exceptions, every single line and monologue is delivered whilst staring with half-closed eyes somewhere into an unspecified distance, and droning the words on and on and on, with nary an emotion or inflection to be heard. I had no idea that usually effervescent actors like Everett, Preiffer, or Tucci can be reduced to this.

There are two minor exceptions to this. First one is Calista Flockhart. The early reports that she plays her lovelorn Helena as neurotic as Ally McBeal are definitely wrong: Helena is at least twice as neurotic as Ally, with rather repetitive facial expressions and mannerisms. Still, Flockhart is the only one cast member who actually acts the dialogue, finding both humor and emotion in Shakespeare’s words. The second exception is Kline. When he’s delivering most of his lines (for example, during the early audition scene), he’s boisterous but uncontrolled, and his energy feels wrong, especially when intercut with placid closeups of gawking onlookers. But when Kline gets a wordless scene -- and he has quite a few of these, when he has to do pure silent acting -- he’s magnificently affecting.

Ultimately, he steals the show. His love story (a chance encounter with the Fairy Queen, who falls in love with him -- at least, until the spell is reversed) is the only one that truly works, and, ultimately, it acquires a mood of wistful romantic sadness, and ties up with Bottom’s acting aspirations. The thing is, Bottom is a mediocre actor (and Kline displays a lot of acting skill playing someone with very little of it) -- but he wants to act. Eventually he realizes that he is incapable of achieving this, very much like he has to forget the dream of being loved by a Fairy Queen, and the ending is nearly heartbreaking.

Such, overall, is also the impression left by the movie as a whole. Its heart is in the right place, and it strives for romance, feeling, and magic. The end result is, unfortunately, that of down-to-earth mediocrity fruitlessly attempting grandeur.