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Brideshead Revisited: 30th Anniversary Blu-ray Edition
U
K 1981

 

Two of Evelyn Waugh’s most popular novels have been well served on the big and little screen: Tony Richardson’s 1965 film The Loved One and ITV’s 1981 television series Brideshead Revisited. Waugh should be quite pleased. The television adaptation by John Mortimer and Derek Granger has since become a classic and was the vehicle that catapulted Jeremy Irons to fame (though it was Anthony Andrews who won the BAFTA TV Award for his deliriously dreamy portrayal of a dissipated Sebastian Flyte).

As we look back on many of those early British television productions we are grateful for what they gave us, but bemoan the fact that money was rarely available to film them in 35 mm. Videotape (ugh!) and 16 mm was the norm. The producers of yesteryear could never have foreseen how important these dramas would become nor how large our displays. There’s just so much we can do now to recover every last grain or pixel, but try we must. The question before us: How well does the new Acorn Blu-ray fare in this respect, and how does it compare with the most recent DVD edition from Acorn and the UK Region 2?

The Series: 10
There’s a good deal of the author, Evelyn Waugh, in Brideshead Revisited. Both he and his protagonist, Charles Ryder, were seduced by country house society, both depended on a small allowance from a begrudging father, they married twice and both had friends with typically odd English names like Boy Mulcaster and Pansy Pakenham. More important, Waugh converted to Catholicism before he was 30, and his novel is very much about the minority religion in England. In later years he became addicted to alcohol and drugs.

Brideshead Revisited could well be thought of as a multi-layered love story. It is only in the early episodes where the bloom of that love is most sweet, after which the seeds of discontent from the early episodes blossom into an ever spiraling descent of alcoholism, depression and betrayal. After a while it seems that it doesn’t really matter who Charles will end up with, so bleak is his emotional life, and so often has love slipped through his fingers.

The story takes place over the years between the two world wars, a period of considerable change all across Europe. The idea that the war to end all wars only served to give way to wars of their own kind at home was perhaps a little too much for many people, and most countries, it seemed. America, which arrived late into those wars was, all the same, affected in ways we could never have predicted: Prohibition and the Great Depression and all that both have bequeathed. But I digress.

The television series, as did the novel, begins in what was then the present: the months just before the invasion of Europe in 1943. Charles Ryder is an officer bivouacked in southern England. He is tired of life and sleepwalks through his duties and fragmented recollections. Charles is surprised to find that his unit is stationed near Brideshead, the estate that, in his college days, became the his personal fountain of love and crisis. His memory suddenly becomes clear and he revisits these with a clarity and poignancy that engages us from the first note of Geoffrey Burgon’s nostalgic score.

Charles, like Waugh, came from money, and was sent off to Oxford for his education. For many of us – less often I think these days – college was more a place for growing up and out than for learning in the academic sense. This seemed to be most true of the upper classes. Charles’s family had money, he had his own private lodgings at school and could afford a servant, but these were nothing compared to the romance of the titled and the filthy rich, represented by the completely willful Sebastian Flyte. Sebastian and Charles fall instantly in love: Charles with another man his age who, unlike himself, seemed independent of a father even more willful and unpredictable than Sebastian; Sebastian with a man who adored him. Any homoerotic take on their relationship is speculative, and equally insignificant.

Wine flows like water for Sebastian and his friends – no, rather like air. The orality of it all and the absolute giving in to any and all whims can be more seductive than heroin, since it allows for undiluted memories. Unhappily, it also offers undiluted pain, since awareness of the “real” world is heightened rather than dulled. It takes some time for alcohol to replace what blood Sebastian’s body attempts to produce, but it wins in the end. Having resources he is able to flee to a distant country to escape family and friends, so miserable is he. Charles has been accepted by Sebastian’s family as the one person who might be able to rescue him, but the damage is too extensive; in fact, much of it was caused by family dynamics to begin with.

Meanwhile, there is Julia, Sebastian’s sister, a conflicted troubled Catholic who, for all her smarts and independence of thought, still believes she will burn in hell if she were to cross the Vatican line. Her parents must have struck her as living proof. Charles, like most English, is not Catholic, and is more or less in love with Julia. It doesn’t look too good for either of them.

As grim as all this sounds, in some ways it’s actually worse. There appears to be so much opportunity squandered, so many paths that meet at cross purposes (Rhett and Scarlet had nothing on these people!) and in the near background lurks the influence of the church. All this unfolds across one of the most beautiful tapestries of western civilization offers, if only to the privileged few – thus the tragedy.

Leonard Norwitz

Television Premiere: October 12th, 1981

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DVD Review: Acorn Media - Region 'A' - Blu-ray

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Distribution Acorn Media - Region 'A' - Blu-ray
Runtime Runtime: 659 minutes 
Video Aspect ratio: 1.33:1
Resolution: 1080p
Codec: AVC
Disc Size: 50 GB x 3
Bit Rate: Moderate (25~30 Mbps)
Episodes: 11
Region: A
   
Audio English (Dolby Digital 2.0) 
Subtitles English (SDH), None
Features

Release Information:
Studio: Acorn Media

Aspect Ratio:
Original Aspect Ratio 1.33:1

Edition Details:
• Revisiting Brideshead (47:40)
• Brideshead Remembered (40:00)
• 4 Episode Commentaries
• Photo galleries for each episode
• Outtakes (9:45)
• Production notes
• Cast and crew biographies
• 20-page companion guide


Presentation:
Expanded Blu-ray case w/ slipcover: BRD x 3
Street Date: November 1, 2011

 

Comments:

NOTE: The below Blu-ray captures were taken directly from the Blu-ray disc.

 

Image: 3/5
Brideshead Revisited is photographed on location in England (Oxford, Castle Howard), Italy (Venice, mostly) and Malta – there are even a few scenes on the RMS Queen Elizabeth 2 at sea. These images not only serve as a kind of counterpoint to the malaise that permeates the story, they make our staying with the series for eleven hours endurable. If the picture quality suffers in this respect so does our involvement. Unlike watching a second or third rate print of Meet John Doe, where allowances can be made, we cannot readily survive a less than textured, colorful and properly resolved Brideshead Revisited.

While no one would have anticipated the high resolution beauty of a Downton Abbey, we might have held out hopes that Acorn’s
Blu-ray of Brideshead Revisited would restore the picture to some sort of Pride and Prejudice glory, but in this they will be sorely disappointed. For one thing, Pride and Prejudice was shot in the larger Super 16 mm format, which offers an image of greater width (which is why it comes out at 1.78:1 on the Blu-ray) and for another, Brideshead Revisited is simply not restored – nor is it marketed as such. So it’s something of a mystery how Acorn got stuck with such a shabby source from which to produce a high definition presentation.

One thing we can say about Acorn’s
Blu-ray up until now: transfer artifacts and edge enhancement is minimal to non-existent, color and contrast look good, noise is low and DNR does not appear to be in evidence. One has the feeling that all they do is convert their source to Blu-ray without any consideration whatever. I suspect that’s what happened here: that they were given a sub-standard source to work with and presented it without blushing. I don’t know if it was possible in the circumstances but it might have been better for them to have refused it.

The picture is 1080p, despite the “1080i” indication on the back cover, and the image is solid with good movement across the frame. All the Brideshead Revisited DVDs I have seen have problems in both of these respects, the worst of which is that all too often it appears that everything on the verge of falling apart, that the pixels cannot find their way to coherency. This impression is wonderfully absent on the
Blu-ray. This and an overall improvement in sharpness is its saving grace. . . or would be if it weren’t for the contrast and color, which is rarely correct.

 

 

Interestingly, both contrast and color are remarkably different on the Region 1 and 2 DVDs, with magentas that embarrass themselves on the UK edition, and black levels and color so intense on the US that it ruins the sense of nostalgia the production design and music take such pains to manifest. The Blu-ray is another matter entirely. Much of the time the image is so faded and thin as to fear for its health. One more step and it would be devoid of color altogether. What color there is often gray/green or magenta. On the other hand, along with bit rates hovering in the low 20s, there are scenes where the Blu-ray gets both color and contrast just right - the darker interiors, mostly, though some at Malta are excellent. A great deal of the second episode is very satisfactory, yet the third alternates long passages of crushed contrast with unruly grain.

Whatever else may be said about the Acorn DVD and
Blu-ray image renderings it is absolutely true that they are entirely different viewing experiences. The one I find exhausting, the other exasperating. And the UK DVD isn’t right either. It all seems puzzlingly arbitrary. What is all the stranger is that Acorn had made so much fuss over their previous DVD, saying that it was restored from the original televised print (not the camera negative!). Evidently, the Blu-ray begins life elsewhere or did not go through a restoration process.

Audio & Music: 5/9
For some reason the source materials offered to Acorn by ITV did not include a high-definition audio track. Not even LPCM! Nothing but tired Dolby Digital, as if dialogue, no matter how elegant, doesn’t require the best the medium can offer. Rant aside, the new
Blu-ray audio represents a significant upgrade in respect to clarity, scale and texture compared to all previous DVDs, which further demonstrates that the source for this transfer is different.

That said there is something that struck me as odd about the audio for the first couple of reels: I had the distinct impression it was running slow! Mr. Iron’s baritone sounded altogether too deep and tired. Even the music seemed to drag. I recognize that Charles is at this point in the story exhausted of life, but still this seemed wrong to me. I skipped forward to his days at Oxford and suddenly the voice and music brightened up. So I measured it. And lo, what takes 110 seconds for the credits and opening monologue on the DVD stretches to 122 on the
Blu-ray. That’s a 10% stretch, yet the entire episode is about four and a half minutes longer on Blu-ray than on the Region 1 DVD, which, funnily enough, is 4% longer than the Acorn DVD. The Acorn DVD is the same length as the UK, which suggests it reflects the usual 4% PAL speedup, yet I have always accepted the voices as being correct – which tells me that my ear is not as sharp as I always assumed. Further personal insults are endured with other episode timings: e.g. episodes 9, 10 and 11 are 53:16/55:50, 51:44/54:12, 100:13/104:22 respectively. So, except for the odd stretch at the beginning, the Blu-ray seems to have the speed correct.

Extras: 7
First up is “Revisiting Brideshead” - a 2006 documentary featuring retrospective interviews with Jeremy Irons, Anthony Andrews, Diana Quick, director Charles Sturridge, and some disregardable thoughts by various TV historians and critics.

Also included are illuminating and at times very entertaining commentaries to accompany four of the episodes, each with a different panel that include actors Jeremy Irons, Diana Quick, Nickolas Grace and Anthony Andrews, producer/writer Derek Granger and director Charles Sturridge.

Brideshead Remembered” is a lengthy audio commentary, new to this release I believe, by the show’s first director Michael Lindsay Hogg played over a photo gallery. Ten minutes worth of funny (rather than completely silly) outtakes round out the bonus features.

Recommendation: 5
The thin colorless image notwithstanding, the
Blu-ray is an improvement of sorts: the audio is definitely clearer and fuller and the picture quality is more coherent and sharper. I should think that someday the Brits will introduce a properly restored high-definition edition of their, but until then, if you can tolerate the variable picture quality, this Blu-ray is the best rendering of Brideshead Revisited available.

Leonard Norwitz
LensViews
March 6, 2012

 


Screen Captures

 

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Acorn Media - Region 'A' - Blu-ray - BOTTOM

 

 


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Acorn Media - Region 'A' - Blu-ray - BOTTOM

 


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US NTSC DVD MIDDLE

Acorn Media - Region 'A' - Blu-ray - BOTTOM

 

 


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Distribution Acorn Media - Region 'A' - Blu-ray



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