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Michael Hoffman directs an all-star cast in this version of one of Shakespeare's most popular works, set in Italy in the 1890's. Duke Theseus (David Strathairn) is unhappy because his daughter Helena (Calista Flockhart), passionately in love with Lysander (Dominic West), refuses to marry her suitor Demetrius (Christian Bale). Helena's friend Hermia (Anna Friel) does love Demetrius, but her affection is unrequited. The quartet escape into the woods, with Helena and Lysander determined to elope. Meanwhile, the fairy king and queen Oberon (Rupert Everett) and Titania (Michelle Pfeiffer) are quarrelling, and their dispute entangles a group of amateur actors rehearsing their play.
By far the best thing about director Michael Hoffman's A Midsummer Night's Dream is the extraordinary all-star cast, which follows the precedent created by Kenneth Branagh's Italian-set romantic Shakespeare comedy, Much Ado About Nothing (1993), of mixing major Hollywood stars, here Kevin Kline and Michelle Pfeiffer, with top British talent, in this instance Christian Bale, Rupert Everett, Roger Rees, David Strathairn and Dominic West. Kline makes a fine Nick Bottom, with Pfeiffer equally good as the fairy queen Titania and Everett brooding effectively as Oberon. Unfortunately, while both look ravishing, it is hard to tell which actress between Anna Friel (Brookside) and Calista Flockhart (Ally McBeal) gives the most wretched performance. Both are completely out of their depth the moment they begin to speak, and utterly outclassed by the excellent Sophie Marceau. Shot in Tuscany and set in the 19th century, parts of the film are extraordinarily beautiful, while other sections could have benefited from some judicious special effects magic. This is not a bad movie, but it is rather uninspired, lacking any real imaginative grasp of the play. In contrast, the much less well known and lower budget Royal Shakespeare Company version of 1996 positively revels in the fantastically surreal possibilities this timeless text. --Gary S. Dalkin
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