Shakespeare, like many things in life, is certainly an acquired taste. Despite centuries of well- deserved adoration from those involved in the theater and scholars, as well as otherwise pompous snobs who adopt the playwright's works as a means of showing off their own pretentiousness, mainstream audiences often have a hard time following the dialogue. Whether they see the Bard's works on the stage or as cinematic adaptions seems to make no difference if anything resembling the original, poetic verse is present.
Some have tried addressing that issue and have modified Shakespeare's works in hopes of allowing greater audiences to enjoy them. The recent "10 Things I Hate About You" was a modern retelling -- with present day, high school English -- of "The Taming of the Shrew" and the Jessica Lange film, "A Thousand Acres," was a farm-set retelling of "King Lear." Meanwhile Baz Luhrmann's "Romeo+Juliet" kept the original dialogue, but turned up the action and style to make the film more hip and palatable to the film's teen-targeted audience.
Going more of the traditional route, but still taking some artistic liberties, is the latest filmed adaption of "A Midsummer Night's Dream." Unlike the recently released critical and audience favorite, "Shakespeare in Love," however -- that the Bard obviously didn't write but which Fox Searchlight Pictures is certainly hoping to capitalize on via the name connection -- this one isn't as inherently "audience friendly" due to the inclusion of that period dialogue.
Much like my initial viewing of "The Commitments" -- or any other heavily accented film -- it took me until about half way through the proceedings until I become acclimated and comfortable with the dialogue and could fully enjoy what was occurring.
While only purists and diehard fans will know if the included verse is completely accurate, they'll probably cringe when anyone -- including this reviewer -- reports that last year's Best Picture winner is a far more entertaining picture with better performances and a more solid overall construction and execution.
That's not to say that this film is bad. For whatever time it takes most moviegoers to fit into its "groove," once they do they'll be treated to a cute and charming, but lightweight diversion that looks great -- courtesy of Oliver Stapleton ("One Fine Day," "The Grifters") and despite the "enchanted" forest obviously being a set -- and which features a well-known and talented cast of performers.
It's that the story itself -- despite the testing of time over several centuries -- just isn't that exciting or, for that matter, very interesting to mainstream viewers. While there's enough there to keep one from being bored, the plot isn't exactly one of Shakespeare's strongest and seems to meander a bit too often. At times one can't help but get the feeling that the well-known cast is partially present simply to hold the viewer's interest.
It's that latter point that often worries Shakespearean purists who cringe at the thought of Keanu Reeves appearing in "Much Ado About Nothing," or Jack Lemmon taking on the role of Marcellus in "Hamlet," all while trying to establish themselves as more "serious actors" at the Bard's expense.
While some of those experiences have been a bit painful and others have been acceptable, for such purists and this film overall, there are no cringe-inducing moments or performances. Veteran performers such as Kevin Kline ("In & Out," the upcoming remake of "The Wild, Wild West") and Michelle Pfeiffer ("The Deep End of the Ocean," "Dangerous Liaisons") seem perfectly cast and deliver fine takes of their characters, while Stanley Tucci ("The Impostors," "Big Night") is delightful as the mischievous Puck.
Meanwhile, "newer" stars such as Calista Flockhart (TV's "Ally McBeal") -- the one performer on most purists' possible "cringe" list for this film -- and Rupert Everett ("My Best Friend's Wedding") easily hold their own and certainly don't draw undue attention to their performances, or themselves as actors trying to stretch their thespian wings (even though some may see a bit of Ally in Helena).
Although the play's die-hard fans may balk at those observations and the choice of writer/director Michael Hoffman ("One Fine Day," "Restoration") to move the play's original setting to Tuscany near the turn of the 20th century -- including the introduction of that newfangled contraption, the bicycle, as a means of transportation -- such modifications don't seem to have harmed the production in any major fashion.
In fact, they bring some new life to this otherwise repeatedly overproduced and often too familiar piece of work. After all, this is the latest in a long line of filmed adaptions of the play that includes the Oscar nominated 1935 version starring Mickey Rooney as Puck and James Cagney as Bottom. The modifications, while perhaps a bit radical, haven't lessened the story's overall thrust that remains relatively the same as when it first appeared on stage many centuries ago.
Of course, mainstream moviegoers -- who are suddenly hot on Shakespeare due to the recent Gwyneth Paltrow starring vehicle -- may be surprised and disappointed to find the film using the original, and initially difficult to follow, dialogue. If they give themselves the time to get acclimated to it, however, and perhaps pre-read a summary of the plot before seeing the film, they'll probably find this moderately charming, but lightweight film to their liking.
Although it took a while to get accustomed to the poetic verse (which was exacerbated by a poor sound system in an old, echoey theater), I found the film mildly enjoyable, but nothing about which to get overly excited, except for a lively and quite funny stage performance filled with bad acting that ends the production. While purists will probably flock to the theaters to see it, the fact that film opens just within days of that little "Star Wars" prequel means it won't be long before you'll be able to view it on video. We give "William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream" a 5 out of 10.