The Depressing Trials of Importing Middlemarch

1994's Middlemarch, the BBC mini-series adaptation of George Eliot's novel by the reliably excellent Andrew Davies, was originally available on DVD only in the UK. I imported it as soon as it was released. Some years later, however, it did make its way on DVD here in the USA, both sold separately and later packaged as part of The George Eliot Collection boxed set. Interestingly, the two releases are rather different. And frustratingly, it's hard to say which is preferable since neither seem to get things quite right.

Update 11/10/15 - 1/30/21: As part of my recent exploration of Spanish blu-rays, I've finally cracked and put in an order with AmazonES.  But I didn't get that 2013 Llamentol BD-R that was so harshly criticized below.  There's a newer edition from Mapetac, which didn't exist when I first wrote this article.  So I rolled the dice, hoping it has at least slightly more to recommend it.
Middlemarch is the tale of a fictional English town during the tumultuous early 1800s. It's a complex, interwoven story with many characters and plots, but the two characters you could probably point to as most central are Dorathea and Dr. Lydgate, young idealists who make terrible marriage choices and struggle for purpose as their life's ambitions are repeatedly thwarted. It's not really a romance, though affairs of the heart certainly factor prominently. But it's still more Dickens than Austen or Bronte, tackling the human condition at large. Andrew Davies and a classic novel are an unbeatable combination (except maybe for that weird, modernized Othello he wrote), so you know this series is firing on all cylinders. It's got a wonderful supporting cast, including Robert Hardy, Colin's brother Jonathan Firth, Rufus Sewell and Elizabeth Spriggs. It was nominated for 8 BAFTAs and won 3, including Best Original Music, which will come into play in the extras. It's a great story, and the BBC has done an excellent job capturing it.
2001 UK DVD from BBC/ 2 Entertain on top;
2005 US DVD from Warner Home Video bottom.
Unfortunately, the BBC didn't do such a great job bringing it to home video. Although to be fair, their first attempt wasn't too terrible for an old DVD of a television drama. Their UK disc is oddly framed at 1.50:1, which makes it somewhat letterboxed, but it's still 4:3 non-anamorphic. And by 2001, all the quality discs were already anamorphic. So it was good news when the newer US disc WAS anamorphic. And they also fixed the aspect ratio, kind of. Well, they at least made it different. The US DVD is 1.78:1, which adds some information to the sides, but chops some off the top and bottom. I'm not really sure what the original aspect was, unfortunately; but I think it's a safe bet that a 1994 TV show wasn't formatting for widescreen TVs yet; so 1.78:1 is probably incorrect. I've never heard of anything being 1.50, though; and the US disc shows us the UK disc is missing picture from the sides... so I daresay they're both wrong.

Speaking of wrong, look at that first US comparison shot: it's interlaced! Yuck. Yeah, the US disc has got it bad, making all horizontal movement look particularly jerky. And this is a problem the UK disc does not have. It only entered into the equation when the US ported it over, so I guess they did the PAL/ NTSC conversion on the cheap. The US disc is also softer and paler than the UK disc, which wasn't exactly an impressively vibrant and clear image to begin with.  Both DVDs have optional English subtitles.
I can't really say either disc gets anything wrong in the extras department, but again, both of our options are quite different. The original UK DVD had two main extras (apart from some commercials/ bonus trailers): a 29+ minute 'making of' documentary and 30 minutes of the score, edited and compiled in 5.1 (the rest of the DVD is in standard stereo). The documentary is quite good, starting off showing how the BBC practically invades a small town and turns it into a period location which the locals have to live their day to day lives in while the series is shooting. It then goes on to interview the cast and crew, covering all aspects of the production from filming to scoring.

The US disc doesn't have either of these, but instead has its own 40 minute documentary, which is actually quite different. While a few key people, like Davies, are interviewed in both; they cover almost entirely different ground. This one takes a broader look focusing more on the original novel, telling you about Eliot, and the recent success of the series. It doesn't really tackle any of the subjects from the UK documentary, making it difficult to choose between them. They're both quite good, so most fans will want both. However, I don't know about you, but the prospect of buying two very flawed releases and still not having a particularly high-end viewing prospect doesn't sound to enticing to me.
You might stop me now to say: but wait! I see online that there is a third option: a Spanish blu-ray. Yes, and admittedly I don't have it to add to the comparisons here; but I have spent a lot of time researching it online. So I can tell you there's a reason I don't own it, and why it's not the solution you'd expect from a newer blu-ray release. The 2013 release is from Llamentol, a most infamous blu-ray label in Spain, known for often releasing their discs on BD-R (which is to say home-made blank blu-ray discs).  I've researched it, and apparently it is quite poor.  Here, wait, allow me to quote a couple 1-star user reviews:

"Another disappointment,No digital restoration,no remastering to high definition.Shown in 4:3 format which looks terrible on a Modern widescreen tv.Not recommended,stick with the dvd." - from AmazonES

"[T]he picture is dire - massive amounts of shimmer and grain - it doesn't even come up a DVD standard (which I had and that was only passable too). There's flicks, wobbles and specks of dirt on the print (it's barely video standard). Worse - it seems to be defaulted to 4/3 which is TV Aspect so it looks like one of those old movies centered in your screen... I can't stress enough how bad the picture is - really awful... I'd say this is one BLU RAY to avoid." - from AmazonUK

"I am terribly disappointed in this blu ray version. It is grainy. Where is the excellent resolution of blu ray? The dvd is so much better! This so-called blu ray is going to Goodwill. Please don't buy this. Get the dvd instead!!!" - from our Amazon

So there you go, users from around the world warn us away from that blu-ray; and no, there are no positive contrary opinions. The blu also doesn't have any of the extras from either of the past DVDs, so I think it's safe to say it's really not a worthwhile option at this point.
2016 ES BD from Mapetac Distribution.
But lo, a new challenger enters the ring!  And it's... well... I have two main points to make about it. It's a pretty awful blu, and it's the best edition on the market.  Allow me to elaborate.  At 1.30:1, it's surely the most accurate aspect ratio of the show to date (though 1.33 would be even more precise).  It retains all the vertical information of the UK DVD, that the US cropped, but it's the tightest of the three along the sides.  Still, this is probably about how it was intended.  It's super soft and noisy for a BD, to the point where I could hardly call it BD quality.  New shows look better  than this in SD.  It also leans a tad green.  But I do have to admit, it is ever so slightly sharper and clearer than the DVDs.  And here's where it really stands out: Mapetac's blu has neither the non-anamorphic problem of the UK DVD or the interlacing of the US DVD, making it the clear winner.  In other words, this is essentially DVD quality... but the other DVDs are deeply flawed.  So this is the definitive version going, and I don't see this series getting a nice remaster any lifetime soon.
Of course the audio is lossy and the only subtitles are Spanish (at least they're entirely optional).  There's also a Spanish dub included.  And unlike the DVDs with their unique featurettes, this BD is barebones.  It is a pressed dual-layered disc, however, which I'm guessing is the only thing distinguishing it from the Llamentol edition.  In fact, Llamentol and Mapetac seem to be sister companies, and I've come across several Mapetac updates of Llamentol releases.  Oh well, I can't say I was expecting more.  At least it resolves the disasters of the previous DVD editions - a rickety but definite step in the right direction.  It's hard to feel excited for an upgrade that looks this ratty, but it's still the best we've got.

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