Breaking Mrs. Dalloway Out of DVD Prison

Here's a perfect little case study for why everybody should go region free: Marleen Gorris's/ Viriginia Woolf's excellent Mrs. Dalloway.  And it's not just the fact that it's only available as a region locked import blu.  Even if you took a "I'm fine sticking with the DVD for this one," because for some reason people think the most important films to see in HD are big action films, even though explosions, movement blur, constant cutting and shaky camera actually hide lower resolution issues more than any kind of footage.  In fact, steady and languid shots that stay focused on close-ups of fine detail are where you're really going to notice unwanted compression.  But fine, Mr. Stubborn, you still insist you're fine with just standard def for dramas and comedy.  Even then, you're not going to be okay with the US option and you'll need to import a region 2 DVD.
Marleen Gorris is probably best known for her previous film, Antonia's Line.  That's the one that won the Academy Award.  Well, I haven't seen it since the 90s, and I remember it being a good movie, but my recollection is that it was pretty schmaltzy from an era where critics seemed to be singling out charming, cutesy foreign films along the lines of Like Water For Chocolate, Amelie, Little Voice, Chocolat, A Very Long Engagement and so on.  Maybe that's not fair; I haven't seen it in decades, and it's not like I'm trying to say those movies suck.  My point simply is: Mrs. Dalloway is not that.  If you're not super familiar with Virigina Woolf, you could be forgiven for expecting just another feathery, period romance, like Notting Hill for grandmothers starring hopelessly out of touch British aristocrats.  No.  The very first scene is a graphic, slow-motion depiction of a man being blown apart by a landmine, as if Morris is specifically saying to us: whatever delicate little box you've got this movie pigeonholed into, my film is not that.
Mrs. Dalloway, the film and the character, is packed with complicated layers.  Even the structure of the film is bouncing around three disparate stories, seeking out their unexpected connections.  A romanticized past, and an anything but romanticized present filled with regret and thoughts of a life lived wrong, and then a contemporaneous young WWI soldier suffering extreme PTSD returned to a genteel London.  The first is a young and wealthy Mrs. Dalloway and her friends, unwittingly making decisions that would set the course for the rest of their lives.  Then Vanessa Redgrave plays the Mrs. Dalloway who's lived out those decisions, now lost in revery and indecision for over what might have been, her greatest potential now being in a dinner party she endlessly frets over.  Will anyone attend?  All that's put into perspective when she observes Rupert Graves at the end of his rope, permanently traumatized by the sides of life she's never had to acknowledge in her carefully shielded experiences.

Perhaps inspired by Emma Thompson's break out success with Sense & Sensibility, not to mention her own involvement in the development of Upstairs Downstairs, Mrs. Dalloway's screenplay was actually penned by actress Eileen Atkins.  There's plenty of terrific, ever-reliable supporting players including Robert Hardy, Alan Cox, Cersei Lannister herself Lena Headey and a particularly sympathetic Michael Kitchen.  And it's all set to an unforgettable theme, with elegantly photographed English locations.
Mrs. Dalloway debuted on DVD back in 1999 from Fox Lorber Films, and if you're a regular on this site, you've probably learned to wince at DVDs that date as far back as the 90s.  They tend to be pretty grubby, and this is no exception.  I'm talking about non-anamorphic widescreen, the whole bit.  First Look reissued it in 2004, but unfortunately it's the same transfer in new packaging.  Meanwhile, over in Region 2 Land, Artificial Eye released a properly anamorphic edition with a little making of doc and the whole bit in 2003.  And that's been the whole story until the HD age, when one country released it on blu, Germany, courtesy of Alive and Alamode Film in 2013.  Of course, you know what region that makes it.
1) First Look DVD; 2) Artificial Eye DVD; 3) Alive BD.
Firstly, this might be a good time to throw in a reminder that a non-anamorphic DVD isn't just annoying for the extreme window-boxing, and the way it makes modern players distort its aspect ratio.  A non-anamorphic widescreen DVD is inherently lower resolution.  So while a DVD generally sits at 720x480 pixels, in this particular case, it has been shrunk down to 535x293, in order to fit the film's proper aspect ratio into the fullscreen box.  And if those numbers seem a bit off, that's because they still don't get the AR exactly right, coming in at 1.82:1.  Artificial Eye's disc not only doesn't have the non-anamorphic issues, it widens out the image to 1.86:1, most noticeably adding more picture on the left.  You'll notice only AE's disc has an extra tower to the building behind them in the second set of shots.  But there's a bit more on the left as well.  It seems to be slightly horizontally squished, however, since Alive widens the image a tad further, to 1.87:1, but still loses that extra info on the sides.  Frankly, they're all slightly off, and a fancy new restoration could probably fit all that info and slivers more into a proper 1.85:1; but these framings are serviceable enough.

Meanwhile, each disc climbs in resolution.  Alive's blu looks like an old master, with only sporadic film grain and a bit of softness to it.  But it's certainly clearer and sharper than AE's DVD, which in turn preserves more detail than First Look's.  The colors also become increasingly less faded, with First Look appearing particularly low contrast with decidedly gray blacks.  The blu is single-layered, 1080p.
All three discs feature a fine Dolby stereo mix.  The back of the blu-ray case has the DTS Master Audio logo, and all the websites seem to credit this disc with DTS-HD, but what's on the disc itself seems to actually be a lossy AC3 encode.  None of the releases offer English subs either, so if you need those, tough luck.  First Look does, however, throw in Spanish subtitles, and Alive naturally has German, along with a complete German 5.1 dub, which is also in AC3.  So, no, that doesn't explain the DTS thing either.  😕
Extras are nothing special, but not nothing at all.  First Look just has the trailer, but Artificial Eye has the trailer plus a fifteen minute 'making of' featurette.  It's promotional and nothing amazing, but it's genuinely informative and worth the watch, catching interviews with many of the cast and crew filmed on location.  Thankfully, Alive keeps the featurette, but despite promising the trailer on the case, loses it, instead only offering a bunch of bonus trailers.  But the featurette's the main thing; as long as that's present, I'm happy.  AE's DVD also includes reversible artwork, and technically so does Alive, as they do that typical German thing, where the reverse is the same thing minus the garish ratings square.
So as you can see, it's not the most amazing blu-ray in the world.  But I think the odds of this getting a fancy 4k restoration are pretty low, and this is the best we've got.  More to the point, however, the US DVD is intolerably poor.  So if you care about this film (and you should), you've got to break those region 1/A chains.

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