Michael Hoffman's 1999 film version of A Midsummer Night's Dream transports the drama's action from ancient Athens to an imaginary Italian village named Monte Athena at the turn of the nineteenth century. In this rendition of the play, Duke Theseus isn't a conquering hero but a tired and seemingly ineffectual bureaucrat. Similarly, Hippolyta, his bride-to-be, isn't the powerful Queen of the Amazons, but a bland, yet beautiful, Victorian feminist. In transporting the play's action, Hoffman seems to have erased the drama's magic and vibrancy, leaving an insipid film, overloaded with Victorian gadgetry. As the film's opening narrative announces, bustles are out and bicycles are in; thus, the lovers chase each other madly through the woods on bicycles, their tooting horns providing a constant, jarring racket to the performance. Even the boisterous Bottom, the errant weaver, and the magical fairy kingdom have lost their charm. This film rips away the drama's magical, gossamer wings, leaving a dull, earthbound husk in their place.
Somehow this version of the play manages to disperse even Bottom's free flowing exuberance. While Shakespeare's Bottom is a bluff, self-assured, and good-hearted clown, Hoffman presents a self-conscious, easily disappointed Bottom. Kevin Kline's rendition of this working-class character seems out-of-place with his fellow working men when he arrives on the scene in a three-piece suit — gone is Bottom's sensual, down-to-earth appeal. In a scene added by Hoffman, a group of boisterous young men pour wine over Bottom as he does an impromptu performance on the street; Kline's Bottom is humiliated, rendered a laughing stock among his village folk in a self-conscious manner that doesn't fit with the play's more complex presentation of Bottom. Another odd addition to the play is Bottom's wife. This shrewish woman judgmentally watches her husband as he performs for the crowds and disgustedly dismisses her husband following the scene in which he is drenched with wine. Once again, Hoffman creates an angst-ridden Bottom whose character does not reflect the original text.
Similarly, Hoffman's rendition of the fairy realm negates its mirth and good humor. Rather than the free-spirited lovers of life presented in the text, the fairies in the film are sniveling, petty, irritable party animals. This is especially true of Puck who has been transformed from a boyish charmer into a crass, middle-aged lounge lizard who revels in peeing in the woods after drinking too much wine. Similarly, Titania loses much of her psychological complexity in the film. The text emphasizes that the strong bonds of an ancient female friendship keep Titania from relinquishing the Indian boy — she wants to care for a dead friend's son — providing a link with the other female characters in the play, whose lives are also marked by strong friendships: Hermia and Helena are like "double cherries" on a single stem; and Hippolyta was once the leader of the Amazons, an all-female society. Hoffman eradicates this emphasis on female friendship, presenting Titania as a selfish and shrewish wife, bent on keeping the Indian boy mainly to spite Oberon.
The effect of Hoffman's changes is that the drama has lost the magic, the mystery, the mayhem of Shakespeare's original conception. Why? Movie critics agree that Hoffman missed the boat in one essential way: He didn't trust Shakespeare. Rather than allowing the language and story of the play to shine, he instead cluttered the performance with gimmicks and gadgets. Rather than letting Shakespeare's original tale tell itself, Hoffman adds scenes that add little to the play's exuberance. A key example is the mud-wrestling bout between Hermia and Helena; one trenchant critic wonders where Jerry Springer is with his whistle at this low point in the performance.
The film also fails because of its inconsistency. Many critics have noted the disparity of the acting styles within the film. A collage of American, English, and French actors, of TV stars and Shakespeareans, the variety of performance styles doesn't add up. Michelle Pfeiffer's rendition of Titania has been deemed cardboard, and many critics question her ability to deliver Shakespearean lines effectively. Even the talented Kevin Kline seems miscast as Bottom, often over performing his role, as is Rupert Everett as Oberon. The obvious clumsiness of their performances opens a critical door for the audience: Who would we cast instead in these roles? How do the director's choices match or clash with ours?
In fact these questions lead us to the film's one saving grace: It forces us to think more carefully about Shakespeare's original artistic conception. Has switching the setting from Athens to Italy enhanced our understanding of the play? Or have we lost the rich mythological resonance Shakespeare created by locating his play in Greece? Does the play's action make sense when placed in the nineteenth century; for example, does it seem plausible that Hermia would still be sentenced to death for disobedience to her father? Many of the film's choices don't seem sensible or coherent, but they make us painfully aware of the richness, the unity, the magic of Shakespeare's original text. By analyzing the details of this modern performance of the play, Shakespeare's mastery and magnetism become vividly apparent.