Enchanting `Dream' plays with light and shadow

Review: Michelle Pfeiffer is voluptuous as a painting in Shakespeare's `Midsummer' -- a delightful wisp of a cloud of romantic folly. At Bottom, Kevin Kline casts a spell that lingers.

May 14, 1999|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC

Bottom's up in the newest screen version of "A Midsummer Night's Dream," William Shakespeare's play that has been brought to the screen three times (four if you count Woody Allen).

Bottom, in this case, is Nick Bottom, a relatively minor character in the play whose transformation into an ass would otherwise be played strictly for laughs. But here, Bottom is portrayed by the superlative Kevin Kline in a wistful, highly sympathetic turn that imbues Shakespeare's most enchanting play with a surprising touch of pathos.

When the folderol has abated, and Shakespeare's various romantic couples have paired off satisfactorily, it's Bottom who will continue to haunt and charm viewers. As a stand-in for every filmgoer's secret hope for fame, passion and magic, he makes a sweetly vulnerable ambassador to those dreams.

Director Michael Hoffman has taken "A Midsummer Night's Dream" from Shakespeare's setting in ancient Greece to 19th century Italy, when bustles still constricted women but bicycles were beginning to free them. A walking embodiment of the time is Helen (Calista Flockhart), who not only rides her bicycle but hauls it and sometimes throws it in her pursuit of Demetrius (Christian Bale), a young gentleman who is betrothed to Hermia (Anna Friel), who is in love with Lysander (Dominic West).

Disaster is about to befall at least three of the foursome: Hermia must agree to marry Demetrius and fast, or else hie herself to a nunnery, a situation that only Demetrius seems to appreciate. Helen will be foiled again in the ways of love, as will Lysander.

Meanwhile, another marriage is impending -- that between Theseus (David Strathairn) and Hippolyta (Sophie Marceau) -- and a group of amateur actors, led by Nick Bottom, are preparing to perform a play for the couple. And just a moth's wing away, the fairy kingdom is abuzz with news of trouble between the Fairy Queen Titania (Michelle Pfeiffer) and Fairy King Oberon (Rupert Everett in a handsomely regal turn).

Love, intrigue and transformation are in the air, all of which will come into play on this midsummer night, with the able assistance from the horned sprite Puck, played in a refreshingly somber turn by Stanley Tucci, who saves the role from death-by-Mickey-Rooney (who giggled his way through the role in 1935).

Bursting with the color and sensuous pleasures of the Tuscan countryside where it was filmed, "A Midsummer Night's Dream" fares wonderfully well under the steady hand of Hoffman, who has his own Shakespeare company in Boise, Idaho. With an ear for Shakespeare's dialogue (well handled by the entire cast) and an eye for the voluptuous, he gives the play's spellbound romance and playful tone their due, taking the characters from a grand castle to a charming town and, finally, into a forest that radiates with otherworldly mystery.

It's this entrancing world that emerges as the true star of "A Midsummer Night's Dream." Lush, glittering, alive with light and enticing shadows, it's a world the movies were made to capture, and production designer Luciana Arrighi and costume designer Gabriella Pescucci bring it to life with heaps of visual style (Titania's handmaidens are especially imaginative, especially the two-faced ones). And this is the world that Bottom discovers when, in a case of mistaken identity that bedevils most of the players in "A Midsummer Night's Dream," he is turned into a braying beast of burden. Dosed with a love potion by Oberon and Puck, Titania falls in love with him and, for a while at least, Bottom -- a man of earthy and unfulfilled desires -- has every sensual pleasure filled and filled again.

Pfeiffer, made up to look like a Botticelli goddess (it doesn't take much work) and Kline provide "A Midsummer Night's Dream" with a lustily funny centrifugal center that makes the youths around them look callow and uninteresting. (Flockhart skeptics should know that her theatrical experience stands her in good stead here, although the Ally-esque lip-pooching does wear a bit thin).

Hoffman's biggest coup in "A Midsummer Night's Dream" is to punch up Bottom and Titania's story, and he wisely lets these two beauties rave as long as they can, but even his prerogative has its limits: All too soon, the foursome once again takes center stage.

By the time Bottom and his players perform a scenery-chewing rendition of "The Most Lamentable Comedy, and Cruel Death of Pyramus and Thisbe" before Theseus' wedding party, interest begins to flag.

Kline is hilarious, of course, and the film ends with a lovely piece of business involving him and an errant shaft of moonlight. But even during this blessed moment, filmgoers will find themselves wishing they had just one more night in that spectacularly be-charmed forest.

`William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream'

Starring Kevin Kline, Michelle Pfeiffer, Calista Flockhart, Anna Friel, Christian Bale, Dominic West

Directed by Michael Hoffman

Rated PG-13 (sensuality and nudity)

Running time: 115 minutes

Released by Fox Searchlight Pictures

Sun Score: ***

Pub Date: 5/14/99

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