I've always seen "A Midsummer Night's Dream" as one of Shakespeare's daffier comedies -- what with the fairies and all -- so this film version, adapted by director Michael Hoffman ("One Fine Day," "Restoration"), came as something of a surprise because it takes itself so seriously.
Hoffman seems to hold the Bard's less jestful observations on amour ("The course of true love never did run smooth") in higher regard than his saucy slapstick of miscommunication.
The laughs are definitely present, but they're subdued as two pairs of young sweethearts steal away into the forest (of 19th Century Tuscany in this adaptation) trying to escape the consequences of an arranged marriage, and rush headlong and unknowingly into the domain of impishly interfering immortals.
Rupert Everett and Stanley Tucci are delightfully cast as Oberon, king of the fairies, and Puck, his joyfully meddlesome right hand. But Hoffman's screenplay has interpreted Oberon as more melancholy than mischievous, taking much of the fun out of his dispatching Puck to toy with the hearts of the mortal lovers and his inconstant queen (Michelle Pfeiffer) -- who is spellcast to blindly fall for Bottom (Kevin Kline), a blundering weaver and amateur actor turned into a literal ass by the magic of the devilish Puck.
The coveted role in "Midsummer" is usually (and naturally) that of Puck, and Tucci's malapert mannerisms are priceless, but the role has been unadvisedly muffled in Hoffman's interpretation in favor of bringing Bottom forward as more of a major character than Shakespeare intended.
However, Kline's perfected penchant for exaggeration is ideal for this enhanced part since he not only gets to wildly over-act in the concluding, clumsy play-within-a-play "Pyramus and Thisbe," but he also becomes a donkey-man, complete with long, hairy ears and a flourish of involuntary, guttural hee-haws.
The commendable cast of mixed up lovers, whose affections are mis-aligned by Puck's misguided meddling, include Anna Friel ("The Land Girls") as the unhappily engaged Hermia; Dominic West ("Spice World," "Surviving Picasso") as Lysander, her true love; the wildly under-appreciated Christian Bale ("Metroland," "Velvet Goldmine") as Demetrius, her betrothed; and -- in a surprisingly sublime performance of bewildered desperation -- Calista Flockhart (of "Ally McBeal" fame) as the broken-hearted Helena, who is spurned and then pursued Demetrius and Lysander, both under the influence of fairy magic.
This "Midsummer" is a decent enough Shakespeare film, but with the toned-down comedy there's nothing to make this interpretation stand out the way some other recent Bard-inspired films ("Romeo + Juliet," "Hamlet," "Shakespeare In Love") have.
There isn't a true laugh-out-loud moment until the film cuts loose with the comedy of errors performance of "Pyramus and Thisbe" that serves as the love story's epilogue, in which Shakespeare mocks "Romeo and Juliet," his esteemed work from the previous year that he's rumored to have never liked as much as audiences and scholars do.