Do You Need a New Room with a View? (DVD/ Blu-ray Comparison)

How picky are you? That question may be the determining factor as to whether you'll be inclined to upgrade to Criterion's new blu-ray release of James Ivory's A Room With a View. It is the best edition to date, at least strictly in terms of the film itself (you'll see what I mean). So if you're adding the film to your collection for the first time, well, even then you'll have a decision to make. But is it worth replacing a previous edition? A comparison would appear to be in order.
1985's A Room With a View is one of several E.M. Forster adaptations from Merchant Ivory.  In fact, it's their first; but it's no less exquisitely composed and scored as the rest. It also has one of my favorite casts: a young Helena Bonham Carter and Julian Sands run just a little wild under the influences of Italy and under the auspices of Maggie Smith, Denholm Elliot and Judi Dench. It's a beatific, smart and surprisingly briskly paced production of a deceptively simple story.

In fact, if I had to come up with a criticism, it's that the story is perhaps a little too simple. She loves him, but societal conventions keep them apart and whoops! She winds up getting engaged to Daniel Day Lewis. Guess how it ends. Not that a film needs to be unpredictable. Is there ever any doubt that Frodo's going to melt that ring in the volcano even before Gandalf slips it to him? The joy is in the getting there, but there aren't even very many complications barring their inevitable outcome. That's what drove me to seek out Andrew Davies' 2007 adaptation for Masterpiece Theater, hoping for a slightly richer, more developed plot as Masterpiece Theater tends to deliver; but that turned out to be disappointingly inferior. In fact, this original film is surprisingly thorough in carrying over most everything from the novel except for some period political speeches by Elliot's character. It's just a simple story, and I don't imagine we'll ever see it told better on film than we do here.
So, I've got two editions for today's comparisons: Warner Bros' lavish 2-disc special edition DVD from 2004 and of course Criterion's recent blu. There is an even older disc, from Image, which you can definitely go ahead and chuck though, as it's feature-less and non-anamorphic. And there's one more release, from 2007 that I haven't got, but which will play an important role in our discussion nonetheless. So let's get begin.
2004 Warner Bros DVD on top; 2015 Criterion blu-ray underneath.
So, we're comparing standard definition to high definition, so obviously clarity is on the blu-ray's side. Criterion has given us a fresh 4k scan from the original camera negative. But Warner Bros' transfer was already pretty strong, and I'm not sure we're getting very much additional detail here. Of course, the DVD is considerably more compressed and smudgier when you get in real close (i.e. the Wincarnis poster in the first set of shots). Really, quality-wise, the DVD's greatest short-coming is being interlaced, which is a disappointment to be sure.

But now we come to the missing middle release. In between the 2004 DVD and Criterion's 2015 blu was a blu-ray from Warner Bros. I haven't got it, but it's an HD upgrade of the transfer we see on the DVD version. Being in HD, it naturally corrects a lot of the compression smudginess, and thankfully fixes the interlacing issue, bringing it fairly close to the Criterion blu. So why bother with the Criterion?

Well, I don't say that the old HD transfer and the new 4k scan are exactly evenly matched. Criterion has done some additional clean-up, removing sporadic flecks, steadying a few loose frames, and tweaking the colors a bit. Those purple flowers pop a little more in that second set of shots, right? But it's hardly night and day. No, the biggest distinction is the aspect ratio. You may've noticed the Criterion screenshots are a little taller than the Warner Bros. Well, when Warner Bros made their transfer, they opened up the old letterboxing of the Image release from 1.85:1 to 1.78.  But Criterion takes it even further, pillarboxing it to 1.66:1. And that does result in a tad more vertical information, even though it loses a sliver on the sides. According to Criterion's booklet, the 1.66 is the director's preferred aspect ratio, so that's a genuine improvement.

Both blus have lossless DTS-HD audio tracks and optional English subtitles. Warner Bros also has Spanish and French options, both in dubbed audio and additional subtitle tracks. The DVD has the same as the Warner Bros blu except it's a lossy 5.1 mix.
But if you're wavering on the fence here, wait, because we haven't even gotten to the biggest distinction between the two releases: the extras. The Warner Bros releases (the 2004 DVDs and 2007 blu-ray are identical in this regard) feature a good deal of stuff, none of which, sadly, is on the Criterion edition. Let's start big: an audio commentary by both Ivory and Merchant, along with  Simon Callow (who played the Reverend Beebe) and the director of photography, Tony Pierce-Roberts. No commentary on the Criterion release at all; it's only here.

And that's just disc 1. On the second DVD of the Warners version, we get a half hour documentary on the author from 1970 called E.M. Forster Remembered, interviews with Callow and Lewis, a featurette on the Merchant/ Ivory production team and a vintage television news report on the film that talks to Merchant, Carter, Elliot and others. There's also a slideshow, though interestingly, no trailer. But none of that is on the Criterion disc. The DVDs are also packaged in a very attractive slip case with an eight-page booklet.
Not that the Criterion is bare-bones, far from it. They've created some excellent new features. Or, at least two. They've got a pair of roughly 30 minute featurettes (one's longer, one's shorter) called Thought and Passion and The Eternal Yes. The first talks to Ivory, Roberts and costume designer John Bright, and the second talks to Carter, Callow and Sands. These are actually better produced than the Warner Bros stuff, which apart from the commentary, is mostly sourced from television. And it's great to finally hear from Sands. Criterion also has a vintage television news segment of its own, and they do have the trailer. Their release also has a booklet with notes. It's just a shame they didn't or couldn't license Warner Bros' extras to create a strong, definitive package.
So if it sounds like I'm making a case for the Warner Bros over the Criterion, no. If you're in the store with one copy in each hand, even assuming it's Warner's blu-ray rather than the DVDs, I'd recommend the Criterion. They've got the fresh 4k transfer and, hmm... it's really a tough call on the extras. Criterion's featurettes beat Warner's featurettes, but WB has the commentary. Definitely keep the older version if you've got it, because their extras are exclusive and somewhat extensive. Unless you're a high enough roller to buy both for the full set of special features, though, the extras situation is going to be frustrating no matter how you choose. So that tips the scale in favor of the Criterion.

But if you already own the Warner Bros blu, is it worth upgrading to the Criterion? Like I said, it depends how picky you are. Are you really that fussed about the difference between the 1.78 and 1.66 aspect ratios? Because that's really the key difference. Yes, the 4k scan is superior, too; but the previous master wasn't exactly a disaster that needed to be replaced. As the DVDExotica guy, I compare screenshots all day, and one is a clear winner. But being honest, I know that if I watched the Criterion blu-ray with my family, then swapped to the Warner Bros blu for the commentary, none of them would pick up on the fact that I switched discs on them. So I'll label this a low priority upgrade. There's much worse stuff to upgrade ahead of A Room With a View, and the extras won't feel like such a compromise.

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