Lord, What Fools

Try as it might, an ineptly directed new film can’t ruin A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Directed by Michael Hoffman
Fox Searchlight Pictures

You need to labor mightily to mess up A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which is the only one of Shakespeare’s masterpieces to be virtually production-proof. It is the most magical of bedroom farces–the ur-bedroom farce, so vast in scope that a bedroom can’t contain it. Its boudoir is an entire forest, symbolizing Nature itself, where mortals and fairies, regals and bumpkins, make love and war, where passion becomes arbitrary and paramours interchangeable; and its last act is a riotously bungled tragedy-within-a-comedy (a celebratory performance by a troupe of “rude mechanicals”) that’s an ironic comment on the trivial pursuits that have preceded it.

I’ve seen Midsummer in a dozen productions–with adolescents at a drama camp, with high-school students, with Meryl Streep, with Kenneth Branagh, with contrapuntal Purcell airs and limpid Mendelssohn strings, in settings romantic and anti-romantic–and it has never come close to not working. Until now. Michael Hoffman, the director and “screenwriter” of the all-star movie called William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (evidently to distinguish it from Stephen King’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream), has wedged the play into a weirdly inapposite setting, has stupidly cut and even more stupidly embellished it, and has miscast it almost to a player. And yet the damn thing works: Shakespeare staggers through, mutilated but triumphant.

The playwright set Midsummer in an ancient, vaguely mythological Greece in which intercourse between mortals and fairies is meant to be commonplace. Titania, queen of the fairies, has already seduced Theseus, duke of Athens, and the struggle between her and her mate, Oberon, for possession of an orphaned changeling boy has generated hurricanes, floods, and “contagious fogs.” With perverse anti-insight, Hoffman has updated the play to a sunny, atmospherically untroubled Tuscany in the 19th century and has filled his frames with scampering street urchins and matrons kneading dough. The fairies that swirl around these settings, first as Tinkerbell-ish balls of light and then as conventional storybook sprites, belong to a different age and culture. (The lines, mysteriously, continue to refer to Athens and Athenians.)

Hoffman evidently thinks that he has chosen the last Western society in which a young woman, Hermia (Anna Friel), could plausibly be threatened with death for not obeying her father’s command to marry his choice of suitors, in this case Demetrius (Christian Bale)–although David Strathairn’s Theseus is such an apologetically lightweight patriarch that the threat seems incongruous. It doesn’t help that Theseus’ own erotic pas de deux with Hippolyta (Sophie Marceau, divested of most of her lines along with her Amazonian spirit) is less sexually charged than an average coffee commercial.

Hoffman adds plenty of meaningless cinematic bustle, then translates Shakespeare’s own set pieces soggily. The illicit lovers Hermia and Lysander (Dominic West) flee “Athens” on bicycles, which are supposed to symbolize modern liberation. But once he gets the couple into the forest, where they’re furiously pursued by Demetrius and his scorned mistress, Helena (Calista Flockhart), their nocturnal circlings might as well be set in a TV studio–they’re stage-bound. Nearly every piece of comic business is campily extraneous to the text, while the lines are blithely disregarded. Oberon’s famous barbed greeting “Ill met by moonlight, proud Titania,” makes little sense when Titania (Michelle Pfeiffer) sits glowering behind a curtain. Commanded by Oberon (Rupert Everett) to squeeze the juice of an aphrodisiac flower into the eye of a man in “Athenian garments,” the impish Puck (Stanley Tucci) falls on a naked Lysander. (“Weeds of Athens he doth wear,” says Puck. Doth not!) Hoffman uses nudity for laughs, to the point where Theseus’ hunting party stumbles on the lovers in their birthday suits–a discovery that would surely result in their arrest on the spot instead of the genial interrogation provided by Shakespeare. For reasons only Hoffman understands, he has saddled Nick Bottom (Kevin Kline), one of Shakespeare’s most delightfully shameless extroverts, with a nagging wife and added bits in which the braggart is poignantly humiliated by children. Idiocy!

I can’t be sure what Everett’s languid, bare-chested Oberon is up to–posing for a Calvin Klein ad, maybe–and his relationship to Tucci’s jaded, aging frat-boy Puck is that of a prissy gamekeeper to a wayward Alvin the Chipmunk. Pfeiffer comes off the worst. She can be a great movie actress, but a key to that greatness is how her dryly sardonic voice–with its edge of neurotic insecurity–plays against her ethereal features and brings her down to earth. When she speaks Shakespearean verse, that nervy edge deserts her: She makes her face a blank and pipes her lines arrhythmically, like a clueless high-school thespian. Yes, she looks like a dream, with cascading blond curls framing those exquisitely suspended cheekbones. But every time she opens her mouth she becomes an airhead.

The mortals fare better. Friel and West, a couple of able Brits, actually know how to speak verse, although Bale is more at home in naturalistic parts. With her twiglike frame and pinched features, Flockhart is a born Hermia. Cast as the discombobulated Helena, she does reasonably well: As she demonstrates every week on the dire Ally McBeal, there’s no one more adept at flinging herself into mortifying situations with masochistic relish.

Thank heaven for the rustics and for the final act, the wedding-night performance of “The most Lamentable Comedy and most Cruel Death of Pyramus and Thisby,” which even Hoffman can’t completely screw up. At times, he’s in his element. He has devised a neat bit of business for the great Max Wright, whose speech about impersonating “the horned moon” is now a hasty impromptu. The tongue-tied lion of Bill Irwin is so eloquent in his inarticulateness that I never wanted him to leave the stage. Roger Rees, under a heavy barbershop mustache, is the sweetest Peter Quince imaginable–both Bottom’s biggest fan and his most sympathetic critic. And even Hoffman’s sentimental interpolations can’t strangle the comic spirit of Kevin Kline. The beauty of Kline’s Bottom is its childlike straightforwardness and simplicity. Kline understands that whatever happens, Bottom remains essentially himself: The ass’s head makes him more serenely Bottom-like. His “Bottom’s Dream” speech is a joyous discovery of the dreamlike essence of life–a truth unglimpsed by any of the play’s other characters. It’s too bad that Hoffman belabors the point by giving Bottom a tender finale in which he stares moist-eyed into the moon. At moments like that, you can almost see the ass’s head materialize on the director.