A Watchable Vanity Fair?

I've had some surprisingly good luck upgrading to these Mapetac blus recently, so I thought I'd roll the dice one more time.  This time it's for one of my absolute personal favorites: 1998's Vanity Fair.  Yes, it's the Andrew Davies version, but even most of his other work falls short of this epic miniseries, especially if you're expecting just another delicate comedy of manners about a 17th century woman who narrowly avoids marrying the wrong man instead of the right one.  Thackeray is quite a sharp turn from Jane Austen.  And speaking of sharp turns, well, we all know the reputation these Llamentol discs have; but when it's the only BD option, and the DVD is fairly borked, well... like I said, we're rolling the dice.
This is the best of all the Vanity Fairs.  It's a true marriage of society's elegance and grotesqueries in every aspect, from its photography to the brilliant soundtrack.  The more recent version has some strengths: adding Michael Palin as narrator lets them include some of Thackeray's non-dialogue text, but it tries way too hard to appeal to modern sensibilities.  It feels like it was made for high school students who couldn't be expected to wrap their heads around a different time period with alternate sensibilities and values so it takes all kind of silly liberties.  At my old job, people always used to ask me about the Reese Witherspoon Vanity Fair, and I would try to warn them against going that route.  It's alright, don't get me wrong.  The production values are admittedly higher, Reese isn't the problem and some of the supporting cast, like Jim Broadbent, are first class.  But chopping the story down to two hours is such an abridgement it loses so many great scenes and consequently cuts the wit and humanity out of those that remain.  It's the same problem all the 1930's versions had, though at least Mira Nair successfully recreated the period.
Actually, I used to be a pretty big proponent of the BBC's 1967 version, which certainly was at one time the definitive VF going, but now comparing the two, I see how much of the heart and subtext has been thrown away compared to the 90s version, almost as harshly as the Witherspoon despite being substantially longer.  Original Masterpiece Theater darling Susan Hampshire and the rest of the cast are all quite smart, and the drama does still build to a beguiling boil by the second half.  It's been a while since I've seen the 80's version (also a BBC miniseries, with Freddie Jones as Sir Pitt Crawley), but I remember feeling it was pretty stiff following this one, which was fairly tied for faithfulness to the novel, but possessed more of the spirit.

If you're looking for a quick way to judge Vanity Fair adaptations, the dictionary scene early on makes it easy.  A number of versions throw it away, quickly depicting the moment without conveying its delicious spirit or the necessary set-up.  Becky Sharp over-did it, adding a hokey little "let this speak volumes" speech to it.  The 2018 version shows us they're determined to botch the Amelia character, and thus the film's central relationship, by changing the scene so they both throw their dictionaries and scream "viva la Napoleon!"  The 90s version remains the only one to get it right.  Plus, the home video situation for this one is pretty dreary.  In the US, it's only ever been released on VHS... at least in the UK, there's a 2-disc DVD set from Acorn.
2004 Acorn DVD.
I assume this was shot on video, so there are no negatives to go back to.  But the interlacing is out of control; it's not intermittent frames like usual, but every frame.  And I gather that's some kind of edge enhancement making their collars flair out in the second shot - it certainly looks like it - but their are so many potential flaws in SD transfers of broadcasts from tape I can't say for sure.  It's murky, the colors are bleeding, really the only thing that seems to have gone right is that the 1.32 AR is probably about right, although as you can see, there's some unusual dead space along the top.  The audio has some background hiss but is reasonably clear.  There are no subtitles and the only extra is a nice behind-the-scenes photo gallery.
But we're not here for that Vanity Fair; we're here for THIS Vanity Fair.  So let us move on. A&E Home Video released the 90's Vanity Fair here on DVD in 2003 as a 2-disc set, in two amaray cases and a slipbox.  Looking at it now, it doesn't hold up (as we'll detail below), but the only blu-ray option is the infamous Llamentol disc released in Spain in 2013, and repackaged as a Mapetac in 2016.  I've bought the latter.
2003 A&E DVD top; 2016 Mapetac BD bottom.
Yes, once again this is the 2011 Llamentol disc, right down to the old label, housed inside the newer 2016 sleeve.  I was initially encouraged by the fact that this is a pressed disc (dual-layer even), not a BDR, like Middlemarch.  On the other hand, I was skeptical of the 16x9 aspect ratio; would this made for television series be widescreen?  In 1998, it's on the bubble.  But comparing the shots, no, this 1.74:1 is correct... or at least close to it.  The fullscreen DVD not only brusquely chops off the sides, and a sliver along the top and bottom, but I caught it doing some ghastly pan and scanning to try and preserve key characters who had been cropped out of shot.  So yeah, this is a big fix of the 1.32, though ideally, sure, we probably want it to be 1.78, or maybe even 1.85:1, without that weird left-hand pillarbox (return of the unusual dead space!).  In fact, we briefly get a glimpse of it.
For one shot early in the final episode, the edges flicker, the left-hand bar disappears and the resulting framing corrects itself to unmatted widescreen, and then snaps right back in the next shot.  During this brief glimpse, there's only very slight negative space along the overscan area, the most being about 7 pixels along the top, opening the shot to 1.79:1.  Oh well.  The 1.74 will do.  Especially when there are other improvements as well.  Most notably: the interlacing is gone!  It was really bad on the DVD, again not intermittent but every frame.  It's hard to say if the blu's HD is any natural improvement in terms of clarity or detail - the patterns on that soft, say - because the interlacing ruins the DVD's picture too much to judge.  But what that means, practically speaking, is that the BD's a huge improvement because we finally get a non-distorted look at the image.  Of course there's no pan & scanning here, and the colors are also cooler, seemingly to correct for an overly pink hue to the DVD, which I'd call another mild improvement, though I suspect a proper restoration could do an even better job of the colors.

Both discs feature the same decent but lossy stereo mix.  The blu also has a stereo Spanish dub.  The one thing the DVD had going for it was optional English subtitles, which the blu predictably replaces with Spanish ones.  So that's a small step backwards.  Neither release has any special features at all, though, so that's a draw.
It's the same story: a low-quality (and quite possibly unlicensed) blu as predicted; but it's all I was hoping for given my expectations.  I knew this wasn't going to look "blu-ray quality," but it did turn out to be a substantial upgrade.  Granted, that's not due to any great qualities of the blu's so much as the DVD having such poor ones, but I've finally got a watchable copy on my shelf that I can live with.  That's a win in my book, and I'm both happy and relieved.

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