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|May 9, 2000||
Michael Hoffman's A Midsummer Night's Dream is a fetching and fresh telling of one of Shakespeare's most delightful comedies.
While not the definitive version of the play (I doubt there ever can be a definitive version of any of Shakespeare's plays), this contemporary and bubbly take on the Bard's masterpiece is thoroughly watchable, utterly charming and hilariously funny.
Hoffman takes some select and strategic liberties with the text, though he sticks to the basic storyline instead of opting for a radical reinterpretation.
The action in his film takes place in late 19th century Italy instead of 16th century Greece. The change of time period allows the director to introduce that newfangled wonder, the bicycle, into the story as a very useful prop. As the viewer will find out, this makes for some very funny situations indeed. Hoffman has also chopped speeches, but it is so well done that even die-hard purists should not have any objections.
For those who came in late -- ie, are guilty of the sin of omission of not having read the play -- the plot is thus: Duke Theseus (David Strathairn) is called by Egeus to adjudicate on a matter involving his daughter, Hermia (Anna Friel).
Egeus has betrothed Hermia to Demetrius (Christian Bale) and is insistent that she marry him, a decision that the latter wholeheartedly seconds.
But Hermia is in love with Lysander (Dominic West), who, in turn, reciprocates her passion for him and the two wish to marry. In tandem, Helena (Calista Flockhart) is desperately enamoured of of Demetrius, who spurns her affections.
Theseus rules that Hermia must obey her father. Unwilling to lead a life without her lover, Hermia and Lysander elope into a nearby forest on their bicycles.
Here's where the plot thickens -- Helena, who knows of this as Hermia's best friend, spills the beans to Demetrius, in the hope of garnering a few brownie points. Demetrius takes off in pursuit of the couple, with Helena pedalling furiously after him. Complication enough, one would think, but there's lots more to mess up matters even further.
Headed for the same forest is a group of five not-so-great actors, who need a place where they can rehearse 'The Most Lamentable Comedy, and Cruel Death of Pyramus and Thisbe.'
Spearheaded by the over-the-top Bottom the Weaver (Kevin Kline), the troupe hopes to perform the play at the wedding of Duke Theseus and Hippolyta (Sophie Marceau) and, in the bargain, obtain a generous reward.
The lovers and actors wind up near the secret lair of the fairies, in the forest. Here too, love -- in the form of a lover's quarrel -- rears its irrepressible head.
Oberon, King of the Fairies (Rupert Everett), and Titania, Queen of the Fairies (the lovely Michelle Pfeiffer) are in the midst of a bitter spat over an Indian boy. Titania refuses to part with her new and novel acquisition, while Oberon wants the boy to be part of his train. The King calls on the services of his loyal servant, Robin Goodfellow aka Puck (Stanley Tucci), to get him the boy.
Chancing to hear a heated exchange of words between Demetrius and Helena, Oberon is overwhelmed with pity for the maiden and decides to help her out, using Puck as the instrument of his goodwill.
What follows is an absolute feast of misrule and, for us as viewers, bewitching and enchanting entertainment with laughs aplenty.
Hoffman and the fine performances of the characters suck us in completely into the fantastic world of the fairies and the twists and turns of the plot. We are enraptured from the buildup of the action to the point where the knot is at its most gnarled to the denouement when all is well with the world.
The movie captures the rich spirit of the original, whether it is the wondrous forest, the meanness of Egeus and Demetrius, the comic repartee between the characters or the out and out slapstick humour that is generously present throughout.
Joy is an emotion one would rarely associate with a movie audience these days, but I can think of no better word to describe the enjoyment of the audience I was a part of when I saw the movie.
And, as with the play, it is the small touches in the film that are a perfect complement to the main thread of action. The touching depiction of the life of Bottom and, indeed, of all the working class amateur actors, Hippolyta's reticence in marrying the Duke, Egeus' hardheartedness -- these little bits are the icing on a very well-baked cake.
All the performances in the play are competent, but Kevin Kline is the pick of the lot as Bottom the Weaver. Whether he is playing the ham who fancies himself a great actor, or the slightly pathetic man who, scared of his wife, creeps into his house, Kline's performance is superb.
Puck is very good too, as the assured, efficient servant and mischevious prankster. He is especially excellent in the scene where he encounters the bicycle and can't figure out for the life of him what is this thing that stands before him!!
Everett stands out as the cool, regal aristocrat among the fairies. Pfeiffer looks dazzling and is perfectly cast as the Queen of the Fairies, while the quartet of lovers handles the complexities of Shakespearean performance with ease.
The sets, locales and costumes are other points where the film scores high. The play of light in the forest, with its shimmering brocade of yellows and greens and blacks and blues, truly transports us to fairy land. The scenes of the fairies revelling and waiting on Titania are among the visually most beautiful moments in the movie.
My sole reservation about this cinematic treat is that it gets a little cloyingly sentimental towards the end. But one false note does not spoil what is otherwise a scrumptious feast.
It is a pity that, because of the occasional scenes of nudity, the film has been rated for adults only, in India. I think children would have loved it, especially the parts with the fairies, the forest, Puck and the slapstick.
There is something in the film for everyone -- the audience I was part of consisted of a wide cross section of people, from the elderly and middle-aged to college students and office-goers; many were there as part of a family or group and many as couples. Proving, as has been proved innumerable times, that the Bard, if you don't mess him up, truly speaks to everyone.
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