Monday, February 18, 2013

Michael5000 vs. Shakespeare at the Movies: A Midsummer Night's Dream (Hoffman, 1999)

The Play: A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Directed by: Michael Hoffman, 1999.

Ebert: 3 Stars
Rotten Tomatoes: 67%

Previous MSND on Michael5000 vs. Shakespeare:
Genre & Setting: MSND is played here as gentle, genteel comedy, and although the effects are well done it is less of a visual spectacular than what you might call a boutique film. The production is set in Italy, or perhaps a tourist brochure of Italy, and placed in the late 19th century in order that they can use awesome costumes and have fun with bicycles. The script remains in Athens, but no matter.

The Adaptation: Casting a Shakespeare adaptation with brand-name actors, some of them best known for television even, is to hang out a pretty big target. You have to expect that many of the star’s fans will be turned off by the Shakespeare, and you certainly have to expect that the Shakespeare fans will show up just itching to make catty remarks about the difference between movie stars and real actors. Or maybe that’s just me. Unfortunately, I found the whole thing rather charming.

The way I see it is, you’ve got four bases to touch if MSND is going to work:
1. The young lover quadrilateral has to be comprehensible. This is handled nicely, with each of the four kids exhibiting enough of an individual personality that we can always tell who is chasing whom and why.

2. The world of the fairies needs to be cool. Check. The world of the fairies in this production is a sort of running sylvan house party, and the emphasis is firmly on mischief, not malice. The three principles – Puck, Oberon, and Titania – all inhabit their roles nicely, conveying an impression that they might have an independent existence before and after their appearance in this story.

3. The tradesmen and their struggle to put on a play needs to transcend slapstick. This is perhaps where this MSND best shines. The players here aren’t the traditional Shakespearean doltish rustics, but a group of well-meaning working stiffs in over their heads. Their initial conversation is shot in a public square, and the response of good-natured passers-by makes it almost believable that these guys could delude themselves into putting on a show for the Duke.

4. The actual play-within-a-play, which is such a long epilogue to the real action of MSND, needs to be amusing. In keeping with (3), this is pretty successful. There’s the usual miscues, awkward pauses, roaring lion, and even a bit with a dog. But then there’s a really neat and unexpected bit.

For most of the production, Francis Flute, the Thisbe (or basically Juliet) character, has been hamming it up in falsetto. But as the play-within-a-play draws to an end, he gets discouraged with the falsetto and renders the final soliloquy in a normal voice, and really well. This is followed by a shot of the Duke’s court, who up until now have been chortling and jeering, staring in rapt surprise. It’s a nice moment.
Clocks In At: A brisk 116 Minutes.

Pros: Genial, relaxed, and fun.

Cons: I liked everything about this production, but found nothing in it that was truly great. But then, A Midsummer Night’s Dream isn’t really supposed to be great. It’s supposed to be entertaining and charming. Success!

Prognosis: If you enjoy some occasional filmed Shakespearean entertainment, this is a pretty good bet.

My two favorite comments from the reviews on Rotten Tomatoes:
“It's captivatingly modest.” – from New York Magazine. I like this one because it’s such an odd thing to say – and yet I am in complete agreement with it.
This Midsummer Night's Dream shows how high the bar has been raised by Shakespeare in Love.” – from the New York Times.  This one is just funny because it’s so dumb, complaining that Hoffman’s MSND didn’t, as a Shakespeare adaptation, do as well as the 1998 romantic comedy written by Marc Norman and fixed, apparently, by Tom Stoppard. Unfortunately, the reviewer fails to assess how well MSND did, as a Shakespeare adaptation, compared with the same year’s Saving Private Ryan.

1 comment:

mrs.5000 said...

I thought Stanley Tucci was a nice surprise as Puck--bringing the comic indignities of an aging civil servant into the role, instead of just the usual insufferable brattishness.