I planned to read A Midsummer Night’s Dream before I saw this film. Unfortunately, I got busy and was unable to do so. However, the plot is simplistic enough that one can tell where the film was taking risks or toying with Shakespeare’s play (though some would say that these are one and the same).
At any rate, the creators chose to set this adaptation in late 18th-century Italy–apparently just so the characters could ride bicycles. While the locations, including a castle and the Italian countryside, are often gorgeous, the majority of the film takes place in a grove that looks like it was left over from a 40’s Tarzan film. This grove is also dark and dank, and overall a rather uninteresting place to set a film. But that’s more a limitation of the script than the filmmaker’s vision.
The plot centers around four lovers. Demetrius (Christian Bale) wants to marry Hermia (Anna Friel) but she loves Lysander (Dominic West). But her father approves of Demetrius and not Lysander, so she is given the choice to marry Demetrius or die. Complicating matters is Helena (Calista Flockhart), who is infatuated with Demetrius and thus annoys him to no end. Hermia and Lysander decide to run away, and tell Helena their plan; Helena then tells Demetrius in hopes that he will abandon the hopeless Hermia and love her instead.
The four of them end up in this mystic grove, where Oberon (Rupert Everett) and his wife Titania (Michelle Pfeiffer) have apparently been hanging out since Roman times. Oberon, angry with his wife over the custody of their child, comes up with a concoction to make Titania fall in love with the first thing she sees–which turns out to be Nick Bottom (Kevin Kline), an aspiring actor turned into a half-donkey half-man creature by an amused Puck, a satyr and aid to Oberon, the latter of whom also decides to try and rectify the situation with the four lovers by sending the oft-confused Puck (you can just imagine the chaos that creates). Got all that?
For what is supposed to be a comedy focusing on the trials and tribulations of the four lovers, the biggest laughs in Midsummer come after the young’uns’ problems have been solved, when they’re at a play passing the time before they can all go to bed and make love. Nick Bottom, cured of his ass-ness, and his fellow actors put on a performance of Pyramus and Thisbe that is awesome in its amateurism.
With the exception of Kline, who gives a certain kind of romantic wistfulness to his Nick, and Pfeiffer, whose Titania has one excellent scene (the one in which she is introduced), none of the actors provide a particularly impressive performance. Of greatest interest is, of course, Calista Flockhart of Ally McBeal fame. Her performance as Helena is one of the better in the film, but still rather dull, in a very not-quite-ready-for-film manner. A pleasant surprise is found in Max Wright, best known for his work on the 80’s sitcom ALF. Wright plays a wry member of Bottom’s acting troop whose cigarette is in his mouth so often that at one point he pulls it out to repeat a line.
While the film is at times fun and definitely a good date film, it’s not much more than that. It’s a light bit of fluff, but perhaps that’s the way the Bard intended his comedies to be.