The idea that love originates somewhere outside of us is an old one. Whether because of destiny or simply Cupid’s errant arrow, the travails of star-crossed lovers are a storytelling staple. In our more cynical times, this usually ends up as high-end Harlequin mush such as Message in a Bottle, but occasionally filmmakers are willing to dive into this deep well for another sip.
Sometimes they tap into an old source, as did Michael Hoffman’s adaptation of William Shakespeare’s fantasy-filled sexual roundelay A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Or, in a rare instance, they create something as hauntingly lovely as Spanish writer-director Julio Medem’s Lovers of the Arctic Circle (Los Amantes del Circulo Polar).
In creating this version of Shakespeare’s celebrated comedy, the one which boldly declares "the course of true love never did run smooth," director Hoffman (Restoration) is more than willing to sacrifice on-screen romance – there’s scant little chemistry between this wildly divergent group of American and British actors – to indulge in his own passionate love affair with the film’s visual possibilities. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is glorious to look at, in part because Hoffman changed the story’s locale from Athens to turn-of-the-century Italy, which means the camera lovingly lingers over the sun-speckled Tuscan landscape with its gently undulating hills and superbly aged villas.
Never mind that Kenneth Branagh did this already in Much Ado About Nothing (1993), because Hoffman goes one step further, constructing elaborate sets at Rome’s fabled studio Cinecittá for the fantastical forest scenes – which unfortunately feel not just stagy, but claustrophobic. In this "natural" world, a quartet of lovers, Demetrius (Christian Bale), Helena (Calista Flockhart), Hermia (Anna Friel) and Lysander (Dominic West), along with overbearing, hammy actor Bottom (Kevin Kline), find themselves the unwitting game pieces of mischievous sprite Puck (Stanley Tucci) and battling fairy monarchs Oberon (Rupert Everett) and Titania (Michelle Pfeiffer).
The delightful moments of this Dream don’t come from the midsummer night filled with amorous misunderstandings, but from Bottom’s troupe’s wonderfully askew staging of a romantic tragedy which quickly slides into unintentional farce.
While most of the cast tries to get their mouths around what’s left of Shakespeare’s dialogue – the Brits admittedly fare better – Kline constructs a complex, touching character whose vulnerability comes through even when he’s chewing scenery or has magically been transformed into a donkey.
It’s poetic justice that Bottom comes out on top in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, because Michael Hoffman isn’t enamored with love per se, but the chance to play dress-up on a grand scale.
Julio Medem, on the other hand, believes in grand, mythical love stories where someone can actually die of a broken heart and repeated coincidences serve as the signposts of fate. But as swooningly beautiful as Lovers of the Arctic Circle is, the accomplished Medem is able to trace the bittersweet conjoining of Ana and Otto from precocious children and indulgent teens to alienated adults (Najwa Nimri and Fele Martínez, who had supporting roles in the recent Open Your Eyes) with a sure, confident hand.
Shifting back and forth through time, and through the often drastically different perspectives of Ana and Otto, Medem layers his story with glorious, cryptic imagery whose meaning is gradually, gracefully revealed.
When they meet as 8-year-olds, both still reeling from loss through death and divorce, each baffled kid acknowledges that it’s a significant moment without quite understanding why. But when Otto’s father Alvaro (Nancho Novo) marries Ana’s mother Olga (Maru Valdivielso), the pair become reluctant step-siblings.
Mixing family dynamics with a romance between the teenagers – a sullen, secretive Ana and the heart-on-his-sleeve Otto – may seem like thorny territory, but Lovers of the Arctic Circle doesn’t approach anything in a typical manner.
Julio Medem does two things simultaneously that make his idiosyncratic romantic vision work. He creates a palpable feeling that, no matter what, Ana and Otto were meant to be together, and builds the story based on details which are imbued with significance by the characters’ emotions.
Sparse and elegant compared to the overstuffed A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Lovers of the Arctic Circle realizes that in real love stories, it’s the little things that mean a lot.
Serena Donadoni writes about film for the Metro Times. E-mail her at [email protected].