Review: ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’

TIFF 2014

6 mins read

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

(USA, 144 min.)
Directed by Julie Taymor


“It really gives you every best seat in the house,” laughs director Julie Taymor during an extended conversation with IndieWire’s Anne Thompson following the TIFF premiere of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Taymor is indeed correct, for A Midsummer Night’s Dream offers a 360° vantage point of one of William Shakespeare’s most beloved plays. This true docu-drama captures the creative process in its fullest and most inspired form.

The maverick director offers one of the most exciting and sumptuous feats of Shakespeare on film through shrewd use of documentary form. The film captures Taymor’s acclaimed production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream during its limited run at the Polonsky Center in Brooklyn, New York. Taymor is no stranger to Shakespeare, both on stage and onscreen, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream remarkably navigates the two art forms for one truly unique experience.

Directing a film-mediated production of Shakespeare is a tricky task and Taymor goes far beyond merely plopping a camera before the stage and filming the production in a tableaux shot. Taymor fully embellishes A Midsummer Night’s Dream by covering multiple performances from various angles and, most notably, getting up close and personal with the actors via handheld cameras placed onstage within the action. It’s virtually impossible to enjoy a close-up in the theatre without juggling a pair of opera glasses but her A Midsummer Night’s Dream offers the complete experience of Shakespeare’s fantastical comedy by punctuating it with reaction shots and vantage points one would not be able to see from a seat in the theatre. The film invests the observational quality of documentary form as part of the film’s performative element, and it makes the camera a wordless orator for Shakespeare’s verse.

This superb production is a magical experience for any fan of film or theatre. The coverage Taymor receives of her production with the help of DP Rodrigo Prieto (Argo, Frida) lets the ingenious production design and stellar performances of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, especially the scene-stealing Kathryn Hunter as Puck, make the film an intimately enchanting experience. (The ensemble overall is impeccable, especially difficult since the film calls on them to harness their craft for both the scope of the stage production and the intimacy of the film production.) From the costumes by Constance Hoffman to the inspired strands of Christmas lights used by child actors playing fairies, each element of Taymor’s visual feast gets its own moment to shine.

This film is remarkable for Taymor’s signature inventiveness and resourcefulness with Shakespeare: she creates worlds, characters, and costumes that evoke the timelessness and longevity of The Bard’s work. The film is at once a testament to Taymor’s ingenuity as a theatrical director and her keen eye as a film director. She smartly knows when to play the verse in long shot and when to accentuate the verse with a cut to a close up of an actor’s face or a minute detail of the production design that is invisible to the naked eye of the theatregoer. An original score by Elliot Goldenthal similarly amplifies the mysticism of A Midsummer Night’s Dream by adding the emotional tenor of a cinematic music cue to the cadence of Shakespeare’s verse.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream deftly moves between film and theatre as a quick cut turns the lived experience of theatre into the magical escapism of cinema. Taymor’s effort plays in a league of its own in comparison to most (if not all) examples of film-mediated theatre by situating the viewers in the midst of the drama and making them both a spectator and a participant in Shakespeare’s play. A Midsummer Night’s Dream remains wholly faithful to Shakespeare’s theatrical origins, but it jumps off the stage and onto the screen like a dream.

Reviewed at the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream screens at Cineplex Front Row Centre events on June 20.

Update: A Midsummer Night’s Dream screens in Toronto at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema on May 13, 16 and 19, and then at TIFF Bell Lightbox on June 6 as part of the Books on Film series with actress Kathryn Hunter on hand to introduce the film and participate in a Q&A

Pat Mullen is the publisher of POV Magazine. He holds a Master’s in Film Studies from Carleton University where his research focused on adaptation and Canadian cinema. Pat has also contributed to outlets including The Canadian Encyclopedia, Paste, That Shelf, Sharp, Xtra, and Complex. He is the vice president of the Toronto Film Critics Association and an international voter for the Golden Globe Awards.

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