A glittery glow, cinematic fairy dust if you will, characterizes the look and feel of "William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream," the latest in a long line of uneven big-screen adaptations of the Bard's works. The often-enchanting visuals and the star power of a cast that includes Kevin Kline, Michelle Pfeiffer, Stanley Tucci, Rupert Everett and Calista Flockhart of TV's "Ally McBeal" together make for a charming, literary-minded respite before the onslaught of summer popcorn fare.
Michael Hoffman, who previously helmed "One Fine Day," "Restoration" and "Soapdish," didn't take many cues from previous big-screen versions of the play, including the 1935 movie featuring practically every actor on the Warners lot, and the Royal Shakespeare Company's 1968 film, starring Judi Dench. Instead, his inspiration came from "an image of this fat little Puck riding through the Tuscan countryside on the back of a turtle," according to the production notes. "The rest of the film sort of spun out from that."
Thus we get a vision of the story as transported to the ornately decorated palaces, lush countrysides and one enchanted forest of Tuscany, during the early 1800s. Tucci is appropriately impish as Puck, sent by Oberon (Everett), the fairy king, to cast various spells -- hapless thespian Bottom (Kline) is transformed into a donkey, and Titania, the fairy queen (Pfeiffer), is tricked into falling for the braying human.
There's more magic, too, as affections are mysteriously rerouted among Helena (Flockhart), who's in hot pursuit of Demetrius (Christian Bale), planning on an arranged marriage with Hermia (Anna Friel), who's in love with Lysander (Dominic West). Got that? All four wind up on bicycles in the woods, not far from the spot where Bottom and his fellow actors have arrived to rehearse "The Most Lamentable Comedy, and Cruel Death of Pyramus and Thisbe," for a performance slated for the wedding of Duke Theseus (David Strathairn) and Hippolyta (Sophie Marceau).
The lovers sort out their difficulties, Oberon and Titania have a happy reunion and the acting troupe -- delightfully nailed by Kline, Roger Rees, Max Wright, Gregory Jbara, Bill Irwin and Sam Rockwell -- pulls off a production that's spiked with screw-ups but ultimately successful.
Hoffman orchestrates all of this in a manner that's altogether watchable, if occasionally disjointed. His biggest misstep is in failing to establish a tone that might unify the performances.
Kline, as usual, is terrific with the broad comedy, a swaggering fool perfectly willing to go way over the top, and occasionally stumbling into something resembling poignancy. Pfeiffer, a vision of soft-focus beauty in flowing tresses and robes, by contrast comes off as practically tranquilized. Flockhart, nearly always on the verge of a tearful tantrum, is too much like Ally. And the reliable Tucci is a hoot, gleefully pedaling his bicycle on the way to deliver his latest love potion and occasionally fouling up the plan.
Mellow or madcap? Sober or sarcastic? Silly or serious? Hoffman isn't quite sure, and neither is anyone else. Fortunately, that lack of cohesive style doesn't obscure the many small treasures of this frothy summer treat.