I get the idea of relocating the action of a Shakespearean play temporally and physically: it can highlight the timelessness of the Bard’s work. (Baz Lurman’s Romeo + Juliet is a prime example of how excitingly contemporary Shakespeare can be.) Sometimes, though, it just sits a little oddly. For all that screenwriter/director Michael Hoffman’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is playfully sexy fun, all those references to Athens and Athenians are a tad bizarre when the story has been transported to the Italian countryside of a century ago.
Set at the “turn of the 19th century” (another oddity: what they mean is the turn of the 20th century, just as we today are at the turn of the 21st century), Dream gives us a world where “necklines are high” and the newfangled bicycle is all the rage. And yet poor young Hermia (the Kate Winslet-esque Anna Friel) is bound by ancient law to marry a man she does not love, Demetrius (Christian Bale: The Portrait of a Lady), at her father’s insistence — otherwise, dear old dad, Egeus (Bernard Hill: Titanic, The Ghost and the Darkness) can have her killed under that same law. Hardly a 20th-century attitude, is it? Hermia instead wants to marry Lysander, and no wonder: he’s played by yummy Dominic West (where have they been hiding this guy?), who has a deliciously charming aura of wickedness lurking under his pretty exterior. Demetrius, in turn, is beloved, much to his chagrin, by Helena (Calista Flockhart: Telling Lies in America), who’s a little long in the tooth for all the stomping and pouting she does. The local nobleman, Theseus (David Strathairn: Simon Birch, Song of Hiawatha, a fabulous actor but miscast here), finds the preparations for his wedding to Hippolyta (Sophie Marceau: Braveheart) interrupted by the need to mediate the dispute between Egeus and Hermia.
Hoffman seems to be dragging his feet a bit early in the film — the setup, however necessary, is rather unengaging. And the setting was made all the more odd for me by the fact that, once we are introduced to the amateur thespian Nick Bottom (Kevin Kline: Wild Wild West, The Ice Storm, completely in his element), drinking coffee at a cafe in the cobblestone-paved square of this small, turn-of-the-century Italian village, I kept expecting to see young Vito Corleone skip through a scene. But once the action moves to the magical forest outside the village, things pick up, the fantasy environment just about wipes away memories of The Godfather Part II, and Dream morphs into a ravishing and gorgeous reverie.
Our four unlucky lovers end up journeying into the woods: Hermia and Lysander are running away to be married; Demetrius follows in search of Hermia; and Helena follows in search of Demetrius. When Oberon (Rupert Everett: An Ideal Husband, Shakespeare in Love), king of this enchanted netherworld, witnesses Demetrius spurning Helena’s declarations of love, he sees an opportunity to kill two lovers with one stone, so to speak. See, all is not well in fairyland: Oberon’s been having a bit of a spat with his queen, Titania (Michelle Pfeiffer: The Prince of Egypt). Looking to get a bit of revenge on Titania and to punish Demetrius for his heartlessness, Oberon dispatches his righthand satyr, Puck (inspired casting in Stanley Tucci: The Imposters, A Life Less Ordinary), to administer love potions to both, in an attempt to have them fall hopelessly in love with each other.
It goes horribly wrong, of course, and romantic shenanigans ensue. In the event that you’re not familiar with the story, I won’t spoil it for you. It probably won’t surprise you to hear, though, that all four of our young lovers end up with their desires turned topsy-turvy. And you’ll see that, strangely enough, the Italian setting so incongruous outside the forest works rather amusingly well when it intrudes a bit into the realm of pixies, gold-dusted fairy queens, and magic potions: Puck makes comical good use of a bicycle, and watch for the fairies using music records as platters.
Also delightful is the production by Nick Bottom and his friends (including one played by the wonderful Bill Irwin) of “Pyramus and Thisbe,” the “mirthful tragedy” they put on in celebration of Theseus and Hippolyta’s wedding. The play within a play is a riot, a story of how a wall played a vital part in a doomed love affair. It’s like an outrageous parody of Shakespeare’s own plays, and it even has what has become a near requirement for me, since Shakespeare in Love, for comedic love stories: a bit with a dog.