*. A Midsummer Night’s Dream has always been one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays on stage. Why then has it been so poorly served on screen?
*. I don’t have an answer to that. I do have some ideas as to why this particular production is so bad though.
*. It is, in a word, too heavy. While Shakespeare’s play isn’t without its dark side, for the most part it’s a very light early comedy. Here, however, it doesn’t seem like anyone is having a good time.
*. Don’t blame Christian Bale. He’s never any fun, but the role of Demetrius is so small I didn’t even notice him. Instead, the first place I’d look is to Kevin Kline, who plays Bottom. Kline received a lot of praise but I think he’s totally miscast and the role itself is badly misconceived.
*. Why introduce Bottom’s wife, and hint at an unhappy marriage? I suppose to explain why he’s such a dreamer. But it has the unfortunate effect of making him into a melancholy figure who drags the play down.
*. The rest of the casting is nearly as bad. Most of the actors seem very uncomfortable doing Shakespeare and labour over their lines. Rupert Everett looks hunky as Oberon, but can’t play the part. Stanley Tucci’s Puck looks like he’d knock Oberon flat. David Strathairn is awkward and American as Theseus. Michelle Pfeiffer can’t do anything with Titania.
*. Two I did like: Calista Flockhart surprised me, acquitting herself well as a neurotic Helena, and Dominic West actually looks like he’s having fun some of the time.
*. I’m sure they were going for something like Branagh’s Much Ado About Nothing. Some of the exteriors even seem to be of the same Tuscan villa. But there’s none of the same energy, none of the same snap in the language, none of the same gusto in the direction. You know things have bottomed out (I wasn’t going for the pun) when the catfight between Hermia and Helena turns into a mud wrestling match. How awful.
*. Few if any of the artistic decisions work. Why bicycles when so much of the action takes place in the forest? Those aren’t mountain bikes. Why forego the usual donkey’s head to just give Bottom a pair of ears and a messy ‘do? Yes, it lets Kline do more, but he just ends up mugging through that part anyway.
*. Even the script is oddly cut. The most famous speech in the play is Theseus’s “The lunatic, the lover, and the poet / Are of imagination all compact,” and it has disappeared. And yet it’s so central to the play!
*. I could go on, but you’ll have already got the point that I really, really didn’t like this movie. In fact, I found it nearly impossible to finish watching. The magic of the play had disappeared. About the only moment I thought it might come back was at the end when the lovers seem to recognize in the play something of what had happened to them the night before. But the moment is fleeting, and its originality seems mainly to stem from its improbability.
*. “The best in this kind are but shadows; and the worst are no worse if imagination amend them.” That’s what Theseus says to Hippolyta by way of trying to excuse the play put on by the mechanicals. That I had to think of it as a way of mitigating the damage here tells you something. That it’s a wonderful line that has been cut from the film tells you something more. Enough.