My beloved husband, the Filthy Critic, is on a business trip this week. If you must know, my curious little kittens, he is representing the Ralston Amoco station at the National Conference of Gas Station Employees (NCGSE). It's quite an honor, and the attendees learn all about the latest in squeegee technology and convenience foods. I'll miss him dearly, mais oui, but I'm hoping he'll bring me a delightful souvenir from Cincinnatti.
Anyway, dumplings, before my hubby left, he asked me to act as substitute film critic. If I had known it was to be such slim pickings this week, I would have flatly refused. As it happens, I blame my enduring love of the Filthy Critic for the fact that I paid five bucks to see "A Midsummer Night's Dream". Oh, what a fool this mortal be!
Shakespeare is popular little puppy right now, and "Midsummer" is probably his only comedy that still has something of interest for current audiences. Just remove a few "Hey, nonny, nonnies", and you're set. People are still interested in bizarre love triangles and fisticuffs, and many will pay good money to see a jerk turned into a donkey. Even more people will pay money to see a half-naked babe fall in love with the aforementioned donkey. I'm just amazed that this film was made with nary a teenager in it.
This latest version of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" is set on the cusp of the 19th century, in the pastoral Italian village of Monte Athena. At this point in time, bicycles and phonographs have infiltrated even the supernatural world. Even with this nudge towards modernity, however, arranged marriages are still the norm, and strict fathers hold sway over the lives of their offspring. So, conveniently, the setting is antiquated enough for fairies to seem plausible, but not so rustic that people can't practice acceptable standards of grooming. Thank heavens, because there's nothing I hate more than a fairy with bad teeth.
Just like in any Shakespearean comedy, this movie has enough plotlines to choke a mule. Duke Theseus (David Straithairn), the ruler of Monte Athena, is preparing to marry Hippolyta (Sophie Marceau), a somewhat independent-minded noblewoman. They have it pretty easy compared to everyone else in the play. This, my petites peches, is because they stay in their castle. Everyone else gads about the forest, where pissy fairies gleefully meddle with the well-being of mortals.
Oberon, the King of the Fairies (Rupert Everett), covets an Indian princeling that his consort, Titania (Michelle Pfeiffer) has adopted. She won't give him up, and the two glitter-painted sprites quarrel, not caring a fig if their tiff wreaks ecological havoc. In greedy desperation, Oberon plans to distract Titania by having his impish henchman Puck (the hirsute Stanley Tucci) slip her a mickey, causing her to fall in love with something repulsive. She does. His name is Kevin Kline.
You see, my duckies, a group of laborers from the village are in the enchanted wood, rehearsing a "brief, tedious" tragedy called "Pyramus and Thisbe" for the Duke's wedding festivities. One of the most vocal members of the troupe is a dandy named Nick Bottom (Kevin Kline). This bouncy Bottom is on the receiving end of Puck's "Ass-Face Makeover". This transformation gets him into the Fairy Queen's pants, but everyone else flees in repulsion and terror. The play is put on hold until Bottom regains his normal ass face.
But that's not enough entertainment for the peevish Oberon and the mischievous, bicycle-riding Puck (a reference to the Real World perhaps?). These crazy fairies are compelled to meddle with a quartet of young lovers as well. This is easily the shrillest part of the movie. Bedraggled Helena (Calista "Painted Maypole" Flockhart) has been spurned by Demetrius (Christian "Spotted and Inconstant Man" Bale), but still desires him enough to yearn even for spaniel status with him. She's just a little jealous of all the attention her girlfriend Hermia (Anna "The Dusky Dwarf" Friel) is getting from Demetrius and another young hothead named Lysander (Dominic "Thou Villain" West). Hermia has her own problems, though, since her father gives her the ultimatum of the nunnery, death, or a future with the lipless wonder Demetrius. It's Lysander she really adores, and the two lovebirds decide to elope. Helena rats on her bosom buddy to Demetrius, they pursue them, and all four youths spend a difficult night in the enchanted wood. The kids have to cope with such pressing issues as mud wrestling, love potions, and partial nudity. It sounds like something the Filthy Critic would see on the USA network, but it's Shakespeare, so it must be edifying, no?
Actually, "Midsummer" is supposed to be whiffenpoof, a confection. There are bawdy jokes and pratfalls aplenty, and it would be misguided to expect earth-shattering revelations from this story. In this movie, the sets and costumes are very stagey, very storybook-pretty. The music is pretty. The people are pretty (well, except for the satyr-like Stanley Tucci). In its best interpretations, "Midsummer" is pure escapist pleasure. Why then, my sweets, did I not experience pleasure with this version? Why did it seem to drag interminably on its tiny, elfin-hooved feet?
My treasured bonbons, the answer is tres facile. The acting, the acting, the acting. I found the bulk of the performances annoying and empty and difficult to endure. Why it is when some actors get the chance to perform Shakespeare, they must do it with so much frantic mugging? Is it because they don't think we'll understand the story unless they bug out their eyes and gesticulate a lot? It reminds me of Abba when they sang in English before knowing a single word of the language. The emphases just sound wrong, and everyone just ends up whining very loudly to show that something is indeed happening. Just because that's how director Michael Hoffman and the performers think this play was originally performed hundreds of years ago, doesn't mean that we have to be annoyed here in the 20th century.
In conclusion, dearies, I think you could probably find a
better performance of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" at
your local "Shakespeare in the Park Festival". So,
if you really have a yen for cranky fairies and feuding lovers
and Elizabethan verse, I recommend that you support the local
arts, instead of wasting your dough on this two-fingered piece