The sole apparent reason for relocating the latest adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream to turn-of-the-century Tuscany is so that the fairy-dazed lovers can putter around the enchanted forest on their newfangled, unwieldy bicycles. It’s a charming conceit—the sacred Bard comes wheeling and crashing into the 20th century—but the film’s temporal suspension between its source and the present day typifies the way in which this Midsummer dangles uncertainly between mannerly devotion to Big Will and susceptibility to a recent cinematic pandemic, the update.
Too bad, because the early scenes whir and buzz along to create quite a pleasing clamor. Thwarted lovers Hermia (Anna Friel) and Lysander (Dominic West) make effortless
complements, Hermia’s intended match, Demetrius (Christian Bale), exudes just the right smug stiffness, and Calista Flockhart evokes empathy for that articulate train wreck, Helena. Director Michael Hoffman hangs back at medium range, making cuts at longish intervals to maintain the integrity of the action. The pace should accelerate all the more once the youngsters escape into the woods, but the transition to the spirit level is abrupt and clumsy—the ornate forest is lit like a Little League night game—and the film never quite regains its footing. The script isn’t sure if Stanley Tucci’s Puck is a dullard or a nihilist; neither version leaves room for Tucci to sell us his closing “If we shadows have offended” speech.
What Kevin Kline has to hawk as Bottom, however, downright stinks. The movie saddles Shakespeare’s holy fool with a maudlin back story and a self-pitying streak; its rendering of his absurdly inept play-within-a-play is funny enough, but Hoffman’s fervor to showcase Bottom’s
“redemption” (via unwitting humiliation, no less) reaches Branaghian levels of bathos. Not content merely to strain Shakespeare’s meaning, Hoffman tacks on his own as well. ‘Tis a weak and idle theme.