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Though enchantingly shot in Tuscany, director Michael Hoffman sometimes tries too hard to create a sense of magic. The soundtrack of opera largely fails, with loud bursts of choruses from La Traviata creating a sense of the producers grasping at anything perceived to be classy and Italian regardless of its relevance. Though the film's tonal shifts can be grating, the closing play-within-a-play, 'Pyramus and Thisbe', is the film's funniest scene, and a very effective update of Shakespeare's hapless mechanicals to a terrifyingly grand fin de siècle theatre. A mandatory requirement in both Shakespeare's day and our own appears to be a 'bit with a dog', but that element in this film is more humorous than most. In line with many modern theatrical productions, the film sexes the play up considerably, with plenty of nudity from the attractive young stars and scenes in which Calista Flockhart and Anna Friel mud-wrestle and kiss, presumably an ironic reference to their celebrated lesbian kisses in Ally McBeal and Brookside.
The acting achievement is mixed. David Strathairn is a rather corporate Theseus, and Rupert Everett misfires playing Oberon with laconic cynicism. Sophie Marceau looks great but struggles with the verse as a very French Hippolita. Stanley Tucci is perfect as Puck, though: mischievous, impish and sexy. Sam Rockwell is hilarious as thespian cross-dressing wannabe Francis Flute, particularly in light of his better-known role as the butch villain in Charlie's Angels. Bernard Hill introduces an appropriately dark note as the stern patriarch Egeus, and the fairies, satyrs and nymphs are all played by beautiful young Italians and look fabulous. Michelle Pfeiffer makes a stunning fairy queen, radiating both regal authority and ethereal otherworldly beauty, and both Pfeiffer and Flockhart demonstrate their considerable talent for comedy.
Just like the DVD release of Kenneth Branagh's Much Ado About Nothing, this disc seems to have missed a trick. Marketing it as an event with lavish extras, cast interviews and some gratuitous shots of Tuscan scenery might have given it a DVD shelf life that compensated for its poor performance at the cinema. Instead there are no extras at all beyond the standard language and scene selection options, suggesting that the low box office take created a reluctance to sink much money into the DVD. Nevertheless, there is enough in the film itself to merit repeat viewings, and the small scale, high quality format provided by home DVD is well-suited to this unambitious but well-crafted and pretty little picture.