Puck on Film

by Allen W. Wright

William Shakespeare's
A Midsummer Night's Dream (1999)

Directed by  Michael Hoffman
Regency Enterprises / Fox Searchlight

Poster for the 1999 A Midsummer Night's Dream

A Hollywood Dream

The 1990s were a good decade for Shakespeare on screen. Kenneth Branagh earned critical acclaim with his 1989 adaptation of Henry V and followed that up with well-regarded versions of Much Ado About Nothing (1993) and Hamlet (1996). If not as critically acclaimed as Branagh’s melancholy Dane, action film star Mel Gibson’s 1990 turn as Hamlet also did well at the box office. And Baz Luhrmann’s modern take on Romeo + Juliet (1996) with star Leonardo DiCaprio made over 10 times its budget. No wonder that William Shakespeare’s name appeared so prominently in the title, that guy was good for business.

Like its 1935 predecessor, this version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream features a galaxy of bankable box office stars. But the 1935 Dream and many of the subsequent film adaptations had started life as a stage production. This Dream was a creature of the movies alone. 

Title card of the 1999 Dream

Moving the tale

TThe original play takes place in Athens, although admittedly an Athens that seems a lot more like Renaissance England. If previous film adaptations had quietly shifted the action to any recognizable point in history, it was usually an England of a few centuries ago. But Hoffman’s film establishes right from the opening title cards that story has shifted to a more specific (if partially ficitional) and relatively more modern location

The village of Monte Athena in Italy at the turn of the 19th century. Necklines are high. Parents are rigid. Marriage is seldom a matter of love.

The good news: The bustle is in decline, allowing for the meteoric rise of that newfangled creation, the bicycle. 

The estate in the 1999 Dream

Judging by the costumes and the type of bicycle on display, it would appear to be the bicycle craze in the last decade or so of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century. A period that would more typically be called “turn of the 20th century”.

Film audiences of the late 1990s immediately recognized this as the setting of the E. M. Forrester novel A Room with a View, or more specifically the popular 1985 film adaptation directed by James Ivory. The lengthy credits plays over Felix Mendelssohn’s classical music and shows the wedding preparations at the estate. We see the busy servants, cooks, cleaners and petty thieves. If it’s not quite our world, it is still most assuredly the “real world”, one that we feel exists.  

Bottom at a cafe

After the conflict over who Hermia should marry unfolds, we shift to the town. As 19th Italian opera music plays, we see crowds milling about, looking at the notice announcing a small prize to those who perform at grand duke Theseus’s wedding. Cyclists weave between street vendors, the mechanicals, and then we find Nick Bottom himself relaxing at an outdoor café.

The crowd scenes are beyond anything the lower-budget English productions could afford. This is no set or a sparse theatre company moving around an estate. Once again, our brain registers this as reality – or at least reality as brought to us by Italy’s famed Cinecitta Studios.

But what happens when the action shifts from the familiar to the magical?

The fairy tavern in the 1999 Dream

The Real World of the Unreal

Rather than setting up Oberon, Titania and their crew as wandering fairies within a forest, Hoffman creates an alternative town for the fairies, sprites, spirts, satyrs and any number of magical creatures. When Puck ask the fairy “Wither wander you?” they aren’t in the greenwood. Instead Puck himself is hanging out in a tavern – not that removed from where we were first introduced to Bottom.

Later we see the fairies of Titania’s bower playing with stolen trinkets from the mortal world – such as phonographs (or vinyl records).

It’s an attempt to invest some earthy reality into an otherwise magical world – an attempt to bring the magical world within the artifice of movies that we term “naturalism”.

The sets are impressive. The make-up is top-notch. And yet, it doesn’t quite work.

The fantasy creatures in this film seem less real than the aliens in Star Wars or Star Trek, or the creatures in any number of fantasy films. In those films, the entire world is constructed. A pointy-eared alien looks at home on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise. But if Star Trek had opened with long and lavish scenes in turn-of-the-century Italy, viewers would have been more likely to reject Spock.

Hoffman and his team haven’t created a new reality for the fairy creatures. They’ve created a distorted copy of our world and our brains recognize it as such -- the Diet Coke version of reality. In some ways, the greenish make-up of the 1968 Dream is more effective by being less “real”.

The super prefix in supernatural means “over” or “above”, not something that is part of nature but something that is other than nature, something beyond nature. By attempting to give physical reality to the fairies, they are in some ways diminished.

Rupert Everett and Michelle Pfeiffer as Oberon and Titania

The King and Queen of Fairyland

Smartly, Hoffman avoids elaborate alien makeup for two of the three central fairies. As with so many productions, Oberon and Titania look largely human, if strangely garbed for the film’s late 19th century setting.

Rupert Everett’s Oberon bellows less than many Oberons. Instead, he has the quiet, amused confidence of one in control. When weighing the good and the bad elements of the film, Everett judged one of the film’s greatest successes.

Michelle Pfeiffer is the movie’s most recognizable Hollywood star, and yet she acquits herself better than most others inserted for name recognition. Her Titania isn’t the revelation that Olivia de Havilland’s Hermia was in 1935, but she holds her own.

Stanley Tucci as Puck on a bicycle

Stanley Tucci as Puck

The best representative of the fairy kingdom is undoubtedly Stanley Tucci as Puck.

At first glance, it might seem an odd casting choice. The last major Hollywood version of the tale had cast a teenage Mickey Rooney in the role, and subsequent interpretations often went for a youthful and sometimes punk take. In his late 30s, Tucci was approximately the same as Ian Holm when he played the role in the 1968 version. But Tucci’s Puck feels older than Holm’s – and that’s not just due to Tucci’s baldness.

Tucci’s Puck has a slight weariness to him at times. It’s a quality that comes from being a servant. He seems to have seen a bit more, but still expresses wonder and delight in such things as the Athenian lovers’ bicycles. This more well-rounded depiction of Puck pairs him well with Kevin Kline’s Bottom, another comic figure who has a touch of sadness about him.

But that’s not to say there’s no trace of the trickster in this Puck.

Tucci truncates some of Puck’s description of his various jests. He ends with “And somtime” and omits the rest of words that follow.

And sometime lurk I in a gossip’s bowl

In very likeness of a roasted crab, 

And when she drinks, against her lips I bob 

And on her withered dewlap pour the ale. 

Tucci as Puck in a cup

Puck omits the words, but not the deeds. In a bit of cinema magic, he appears in the cup of one of the other creatures in the tavern. And then laughs uproariously when the huge creature drops his ale in shock.

Calista Flockhart, Dominic West and Christian Bale in A Midsummer Night's Dream ">

The Fault Lies in the Stars

The great joy of productions from the Royal Shakespeare Company is the clarity of language – Shakespeare’s lines delivered in a way that captures this the right tone, imparting both the meaning and emotion to modern audiences. This production, with a couple notable exceptions, is not quite as blessed. David Strathairn speaks well as Grand Duke Theseus. Sophie Marceau is far less convincing as Hippolyta. Her French accent alone is not the issue.

The most miscast roles in the 1935 Dream were three of the four Athenian lovers, made up of Warner Brothers contract players. This time, Dominic West (his star-making turn in The Wire a few years away) and Anna Friel are acceptable as Lysander and Hermia – at least until they are bewitched. Christian Bale’s Demetrius comes off as the “spotted and inconstant man” that Lysander accuses him of being, but he’s little more than that, a prototype to the foppish Bruce Wayne persona that lay in Bale’s acting future.

But one of the biggest names in the cast but also the most miscast is Calistra Flockhart as Helena. Flockhart was the star of the hit Fox legal comedy-drama series Ally McBeal. Of all the lovers, the film puts the most focus on Helena, but she seems out of place. She’s out of place with the Shakespearean dialogue, and she’s out of place with the film’s late 19th century setting. She is never anything but a late 20th century woman. She is this movie’s equivalent of Dick Powell in the 1935 Dream.

What this movie needs it someone who is both a big star and a great Shakespearean actor. Fortunately, this movie has one.

Kevin Kline as Bottom with the fairies

Bottom to the Rescue

The emotional heart of this version of the Dream is focused firmly on Bottom, and that’s a wise choice. Kevin Kline is an Oscar-winning comedy actor, a top-billed star and with the gift of investing his roles with added poignancy. He’d earned a Tony for his role as the Pirate King in the The Pirates of Penzance. And best of all, he’d played leading roles at the New York Shakespeare Festival. Kline is the real deal – a Hollywood star and a bona fide Shakespeare actor.

Hoffman adds more depth to Bottom’s role by giving the character a wife, not even alluded to in Shakespeare’s play. We feel his loss and regret over a life not lived as well as he’d wish. This Bottom is also a much classier dresser than he’s normally portrayed. Bottom may be a failure, but he’s a failure that’s trying to look good.

Roger Rees, Sam Rockwell and the other mechanicals in 1999's A Midsummer Night's Dream

Peter Quince, played superbly by Roger Rees – a veteran of the American sitcom Cheers and Britain’s Royal Shakespeare Company – has pinned all his hopes on Bottom. In the end, their play succeeds more on the previously unknown acting talents of Flute, portrayed by Sam Rockwell.

As Bottom observes the fairy magic blessing the land, we feel that mix of victory and sadness. He’s a fool coming to terms with his foolishness.

Stanley Tucci as a street sweeper Puck

Concluding thoughts

This film benefits from the splendid Italian locations – with daytime scenes drenched in golden sun. Hoffman’s made smart choices in casting Kevin Kline as Bottom and Stanley Tucci as Puck.

Unfortunately, it suffers a bit in that battle between verisimilitude and fantasy. It’s fairy-tale world while well-constructed rings not quite true, and with the benefit of hindsight seems very 1990s. The more regrettable stunt casting also feels very much of its time. 


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