The text below the break is part of a theatrical review originally published on May 17th, 1999.
Here are some updated thoughts: A Midsummer Night’s Dream continues to be one of my favorite plays; yet, I’ve come to the conclusion that it is best performed on stage. None of the film versions I’ve seen come close to capturing the magic of the play as performed live in front of an audience. With that being said, I still would like to see it filmed with state-of-the-art special effects. Until then, I’ll continue going to live productions and randomly performing Helena’s monologue when my students least suspect it.
Michael Hoffman’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is by far the best film version of the play I have seen . . . unfortunately, that isn’t saying much! From the boring 1935 Max Reinhardt version (with a horrendous Mickey Rooney as Puck) to the psychedelic 1968 Royal Shakespeare Company production to the . . . yawn! . . . 1982 BBC production, Midsummer on film has left a lot to be desired. To date the best version of the play on video is the 1982 New York Shakespeare Festival stage production filmed in Central Park. So, it was with eager anticipation that I awaited the release of Hoffman’s film. With a stellar cast including Rupert Everett, Kevin Kline, Stanley Tucci, Sophie Marceau and Michelle Pfeiffer, and great SFX, I didn’t think the film could miss. So, I donned my favorite Shakespeare sweatshirt and prepared myself for a fabulous movie-going experience. I was mildly disappointed (and not simply because the guy behind me was hacking up a lung during Act V!).
Hoffman’s Midsummer opens in the lush, rolling hills of Tuscany as Theseus, Duke of Athena, prepares for his wedding to Hippolyta. The setting for the scenes at Theseus’ court is absolutely beautiful. The elaborate set built for the Fairy Kingdom is also impressive, but it too closely resembles a stage set. The two worlds do not seem to belong in the same film. In fact, the acting styles appear to switch from film to stage when the actors move from one set to the next.
Although all of the actors turned in credible performances, I was disappointed in Hoffman’s decision to have David Strathairn’s Theseus portrayed as such a mild man. He did not come across as a ruler of a city. Sophie Marceau’s Hippolyta was a far cry from the Amazon Queen that Shakespeare created, but her character fit the time period and setting. Kevin Kline did a wonderful job as Bottom, but I disliked Hoffman’s choice to make Bottom such a “deep” character. Shakespeare’s Bottom is highly comedic and incites laughter from the audience; while Hoffman’s Bottom is a pathetic man in an unhappy marriage with delusions of grandeur. It’s difficult to enjoy a comedy when I feel sorry for one of the main characters!
A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1999)
Director: Michael Hoffman
Starring: Kevin Kline, Michelle Pfeiffer, Calista Flockhart, et al.
Genre: Fantasy / Comedy
Media: Film, 116 minutes
Budget: $11 million
Box Office: $16 million, worldwide
Year: May 14, 1999
I loved Michelle Pfeiffer’s sensual Titania but felt that Rupert Everett’s Oberon and Stanley Tucci’s Puck were far too subdued. Hoffman was obviously attempting to portray the dark side of the forest and the fairies, but I don’t think that means that Oberon and Puck need to be boring. It would be a much more interesting choice to have the characters act a bit sinister rather than subdued.
Hoffman did a good job cutting the script for the film. There was only one moment in the entire movie where I was bothered by rearranged/cut lines. At the end of Act I, scene 1, Helena delivers her famous “How happy some o’er other some can be!” monologue. This monologue sets up her betrayal of Hermia to Demetrius, and Hoffman cut most of the speech! Helena delivered a bit of the speech a couple scenes later, but the overall effect of the monologue was lost.
The one moment in the movie that surprised me was when Flute (Sam Rockwell) delivered Thisbe’s death speech. Usually the Mechanical’s play-within-the-play is performed solely for laughs, but Rockwell’s performance was absolutely moving.
If you like Shakespeare, you will enjoy this movie. If you don’t know much about the plot of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, you may want to read a summary of the play before going to the movie.
Note: I’m revisiting and re-posting many older articles (almost 200) I’ve written (or contributed to) over the years, either for my own purposes or as contributions to other sites now long digitally decayed and dormant. These reviews/articles will appear in their nearly raw, unaltered form, with a few updated thoughts at the beginning of each.