Ian McKellen's Re-Revamped Richard III (DVD/ Blu-ray Comparison)

Maybe it's not entirely proper to call the 1995 film of Richard III, "Ian McKellen's Richard III," since it was actually directed by Richard Loncraine. But besides starring as our titular Richard, McKellen does share a producer and writing credit (along with Loncraine) for this particular adaptation, so it's hard not to think of him as the driving force behind this film. But maybe that's just the influence of the story itself, William Shakespeare's famous play where the villain breaks the fourth wall and guides you by the hand through his fiendish plot. At any rate, it shows McKellen has surely succeeded in capturing the role in that we now often picture him when we think of Richard, Duke of Gloucester. And BFI's smashing new edition is only going to further cement that.

Update 5/7/12: To really do this comparison right, we've got to bring in the US blu-ray from Twilight Time, right? Right! DVDExotica needs more Twilight Time anyway.
I guess there are a couple things to know before going into this particular Richard III. First, thankfully, it keeps the original language. This isn't one of those updated Shakespeare films where they modernize the dialogue to "Hey, where's Hamlet." "He's over by that grave." "Super, thanks."  So why do McKellen and Loncraine get writing credits? Well, because it's not 100% of the complete original play being filmed here. It's abridged by, oh, almost half? Alterations have been made. So, if you're looking for a definitively faithful presentation of Shakespeare's Richard III, original language or not, you can do better. And finally, this 1995 version is part of a surprisingly long tradition of transposing Shakespeare's play into alternate timelines and settings. Here, we stay in London, but into a weird sort of alternate timeline where it's a Nazi government in the 1930s. It takes a bit of clever contrivance to make the famous "my kingdom for a horse" line now apply to a military jeep. But, given Shakespeare's cavalier attitude towards the real history of King Richard III in his work, it's hard to hold a little artistic license against the filmmakers here.
But if you're in the market for a good telling of the tale, you're going to love this film. It may not quite dethrone my personal favorite Richard III film (Olivier's, which by the way, is far from perfectly faithful itself), but it does deliver some strong elements that one does not; and it's certainly different enough that there's room in our collections for both. What has this film got? Production values! Beautiful photography, lavish costumes, a cavalcade of delicious murders, stunning locations and epic war scenes with tons of extras, explosions and people running around on fire. And most importantly, it's got great actors delivering brilliant speeches from perhaps Shakespeare's most entertaining story. McKellen was born to deliver Shakespeare (if you haven't, be sure to see his 1990 Othello and especially his 1979 Macbeth with Judi Dench), and he's far from alone. This film has a terrific supporting cast including Jim Broadbent, Robert Downey Jr., Maggie Smith, Blackadder's own Tim McInnerny, Annette Bening and Nigel Hawthorne. If that's not enough to get you to want to watch this movie, what if I told you McKellen drives a tank through an occupied castle? This movie is everything for all people!
So Richard III debuted on DVD from MGM in 2000. It was a pretty no frills flipper disc, with a widescreen presentation on one side, and full-screen on the other. It came out only a few months later in the UK from Pathe, which was also pretty light on features. Finally, in 2015, Twilight Time released it on blu-ray for the first time. But now BFI has topped them with their new blu-ray/ DVD combo pack with a brand new 2k scan of the original 35mm negative, for the first time, a noteworthy collection of special features! Well, I've got both the old DVDs, and the new BFI set, so prepare to see Richard III in many different aspect ratios:
1) MGM wide 2) MGM full 3) Pathe 4) Twilight Time 5) BFI DVD 6) BFI blu-ray
MGM came out first but I bought the Pathe DVD because it listed a featurette the MGM didn't have. It was only when it arrived that I found out Pathe was in the incorrect aspect ratio of about 1.74:1. So then I went back and picked up the MGM, which had the correct aspect ratio and did look a lot better. I'd actually forgotten, until revisiting it for this post, that the Pathe DVD isn't even anamorphic - yikes! MGM doesn't have that problem and actually looks pretty good, except for a warmer color scheme that's so extreme it could almost be called an orange overcast. It also gives us the added bonus of the fullscreen mode, which is of course an incorrectly framed pan & scan mess, but at least gives us a lot of upper and lower open matte picture for curiosity's sake.

But of course, the newer HD presentations usurp all the standard def DVDs. Interestingly, the framing's are a bit different.  I mean, even excluding the fullscreen version and the Pathe disc, MGM is 2.31 while Twilight Time and BFI are 2.40 and 2.39. respectively. And they are framed a smidgen differently... in the top set of shots, you'll notice MGM has a sliver more along the top, and BFI has a smidgen more along the bottom. But horizontally, they're pretty identical. So why the difference in ratio? The picture is actually slightly stretched on the BFI, or more accurately, squished (to use a technical term) on the MGM.  Meanwhile, Twilight Time has a tiny bit more on the left than BFI; that's the 2.39-2.40 difference.  Otherwise, the two blus' PQ might not seem wildly different, but BFI's new scan definitely makes their grain more distinct.  Just compare the skies in the second set of shots and it's very obvious.  Also, color-wise, BFI pushes a bit more to the red.

Both DVDs had 5.1 audio and English subtitles/ captioning. MGM also has a French 2.0 dub, plus French and Spanish subtitles. Twilight Time brings the 5.1 mix to DTS-HD and also includes English subtitles, but BFI offers the best audio options of all, offering the choice of the DTS-HD 5.1 mix or, for the first time ever, the original 2.0 stereo track, which they present in uncompressed LPCM.  And yes, it has English subs, too.
Pathe's promo featurette
Extras-wise, BFI is playing to win, but there is a bit worth mentioning across the prior releases. MGM basically just had the trailer (non-anamorphic, 1.68:1 on both sides of the disc), although it also came with a nice, fold-out insert with interesting notes. Twilight Time has the trailer, a nice little 6-page booklet by Julie Kirgo and, as per their usual m.o., the isolated score on a separate audio track.  And Pathe also had the trailer, no insert, but did have an exclusive 'making of' featurette. It's only five minutes long, and heavy on clips from the film, but it does let us hear from McKellen and co. at the time of filming, and includes a voice or two not heard from on BFI's extensive extras.

BFI has a ton of stuff with McKellen and Loncraine, but nobody else. I suspect some of this might've been made for British television; but anyway, you really can't say we don't get enough from these two. They do an audio commentary, a brief retrospective featurette, and a substantial live Q&A together. Then there's a 79 minute special of McKellen lecturing on Shakespeare. It kind of reminds me of his Acting Shakespeare DVD, which was interesting but a bit dry; however, this is definitely brand new. Still a bit dry, though. Finally, there's a new 2016 trailer, which advertises the reunion of McKellen and Loncraine as well as the movie. BFI's set also comes with a weighty 34-page booklet, which definitely surpasses MGM's old insert and even Twilight Time's booklet.
I highly recommend the film and in particular BFI's new blu. I confess to being a little bit disappointed that they didn't include the original making of featurette (and even the original trailer), but it's certainly nothing to hold out for or double-dip on. The extras could've been a little more well-rounded, i.e. interviewing any of the slew of other highly talented people involved in making this film, but they certainly plumbed the depths of its two key players. How many special editions seem to get everybody except the film's big star? Well, contrary to that, we have to be grateful for McKellen's thorough involvement here. He even wrote the booklet for gosh sake. So definitely pick this one up; but if you're like me, hang onto your grubby little Pathe disc as well.

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