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'Midsummer': Pleasant but Not Dreamy

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 14, 1999

  Movie Critic

A Midsummer Night's Dream
Kevin Kline and Michelle Pfeiffer are under the influence of fairy dust. (Fox Searchlight)

Michael Hoffman
Kevin Kline;
Michelle Pfeiffer;
Rupert Everett;
Stanley Tucci;
Calista Flockhart;
David Strathairn;
Christian Bale;
Sophie Marceau
Running Time:
2 hours
Contains background nudity and good English
After watching "William Shakespeare's 'A Midsummer Night's Dream,' " Michael Hoffman's adaptation of the romantic comedy, I'm left with more admiration than fairy dust. But it was pleasurable all the same.

I only wish I had loved this film the way I enjoyed an outdoor stage version one delightful summer's eve in the early 1970s in Hyde Park, London.

The performers (were they from the Royal Shakespeare Company?), dressed in Roman period costume, enthralled me and my fellow, knock-kneed schoolboys. The big star was an athletic, sandaled Puck who leapt like a two-footed gazelle between shrubs and bushes.

He seemed more like Tarzan or Hermes than Puck. There was also a romantic delicacy over everything, and a sense we had really penetrated the world of fairies. I felt as if I had been to romantic oblivion and back that night.

Hoffman's movie didn't take me on the same flight, but his direction is imaginative, and there are spirited performances from Kevin Kline as Nick Bottom and Calista Flockhart as Helena, that tenacious pursuer of a man with eyes for another.

In case you haven't taken that class, "A Midsummer Night's Dream" is a play written by the Man of Stratford-Upon-Avon 400 years ago.

It's about a handful of frustrated lovers whose unrequited, mismatched passions are put right – eventually, that is – by a circle of fairies with too much time and fairy dust on their hands. If you use this synopsis in your next English test, I don't know you.

When her imperious father demands an arranged marriage with the wrong man, Hermia (Anna Friel) and her true love, Lysander (Dominic West), run off to the forest.

The setting, by the way, is 19th-century Tuscany, a beautiful world of cafes and squares, where that newfangled invention known as the bicycle has become the hottest thing. Thus, Hermia and Lysander escape by bike. Demetrius (Christian Bale), the promised groom in Dad's arranged union, chases Hermia, also on bicycle. Helena (Flockhart), who's crazy for Demetrius, gets on her wheels, too, and chases him.

They're all headed for the magical lair of Oberon (Rupert Everett), King of the, uh, Fairies, whose jealousy for his wife Titania (Michelle Pfeiffer in excelsis) knows no bounds, and whose trusted assistant, Puck (Stanley Tucci), is read ily available for mischievous duty.

Employing a potion that causes its recipients to fall in love with the first person they see, Puck starts the craziness that – for one midsummer night's eve – will render everyone romantically bonkers. Titania, for example, will find herself inextricably drawn to Bottom (Kline), an insufferable over-actor in a troupe of simple-minded actors who happen to be rehearsing a play in the forest. To make this attraction even more comical, Oberon's minion renders Bottom into a partial, big-eared ass.

Hoffman introduces a memorable sensuality to the movie. The fairy world has a definite whiff of passion, lust and Bacchanalia about it, while lustrous tresses of hair seem to have a magical sense of decency, falling in all the right, tactful places.

Is it possible that Hoffman – who made the underrated "Restoration," was too bright and busy about things? Is that why Bottom's fellow goofballs – who are supposed to be comic relief – look like the somber cast of "The Iceman Cometh"?

The magic, alas, isn't as potent as it could have been. It seems merely a means to a dramatic end, rather than a rhapsodic, enchanting end unto itself. And if there had been more of it, Hoffman could have sprinkled it over Bale, Everett and Sophie Marceau (as Hippolyta), who honor their duties rather than rise above their roles. They are passing cameos, but not radiant parts of a great whole.

Hoffman's more successful with the bigger names. There's an amusing piece of business, for instance, when Tucci's Puck tries to make sense of this strange contraption called a bicycle. And he has a comical array of, uh, puckish facial expressions. Pfeiffer is visually radiant, although this probably has more to do with cinematography and her genetics than performance.

Kline and Flockhart do most of the pedaling. When Kline gets goofy – as he did in "A Fish Called Wanda" and "In & Out," he's an irresistible, madcap Errol Flynn, twisting his good looks into hilarious contortions. And Flockhart exudes a wonderful vulnerability and sense of comic timing, as she pursues Demetrius, suffering all manner of indignity and incredulity along the way. Unfortunately, her character is scripted to wax poetic about Bale, who hardly deserves such a charismatic soul. Passing inequities like this turned this movie into a pleasing reverie, say, rather than a lifelong dream.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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