When In Spain, Visit Mansfield Park

I've been thinking about Spanish blu-rays lately.  They're so infamous for being hopelessly awash in bootlegs that collectors tend to avoid ordering anything from the whole country because their reputation's been so soiled and people are rightly afraid of getting burned.  The biggest issue seems to be that some major distributors and labels over there get treated like legit companies even though they're consistently selling unlicensed, low quality, even upscaled BDRs in stores and online.  Here's a fantastic series of articles about it (though not Spain-focused, they do detail all of their most notorious offenders).  And you can also, for whatever reason, never seem to find proper online reviews of Spanish discs.  So people just tend to write off anything released over there, which is awful for the completely legit outlets over there that are paying for all the rights and coming out with perfectly respectable BDs.  They're not all bootlegs.  And there are some super tempting exclusives... we just need one poor sucker to take a leap of faith, throw their hard earned money at some blind buys hoping not to get burned with junk discs, and report back.  Today, I'm your sucker.
There was no question what title I'd start with.  I'd been eying Spain's exclusive hold on 1999's Mansfield Park with jealousy for a very long time.  There is no blu-ray anywhere else in the world, just very old DVDs.  And this movie has long been one of my favorites, to the point where anytime I feel blocked as a writer, I can just watch this and I'm fully inspired again.  It's a bright and beautiful adaptation, though as naysayers are quite right to point out, it isn't strictly the most faithful.

Writer/ director Patricia Rozema points out in her commentary, that the opening credits make the important distinction that this is based not only on Jane Austen's novel, but "her letters and early journals."  Most obviously, this allows her to intersperse the film with Frances O'Connor quoting some fun passages of Austen's early writing, allowing us to sample more of her work that's always otherwise been left off the screen, which is a nice treat.  But more importantly, it means that Rozema is up to more than simply, directly filming the novel, and in the course, changing the extremely straight-laced lead character of Fanny Price to someone much more spirited, and in tune with the real Austen.  Referring to the commentary again, Rozema points out some remarkable autobiographical details Price shares with her creator.  We also see Fanny's favorite brother Michael becomes her favorite sister Susan, and more importantly, Rozema is determined to talk about slavery.
Of course, it has to be acknowledged that slavery is touched on in the novel.  It's briefly but directly discussed by characters in the novel, and Austen is no doubt saying something about where the fortune that Fanny is being elevated to derives from, and no doubt some correlations to state of women at that time.  It's certainly illustrated time and again that even Fanny's wealthy cousins are far from free.  But Rozema takes Austen's subtext and bumps it up to the text, with multiple new scenes, some startling imagery and even a recurring African theme song called "Djonga (Slavery)."  But the surprise is how good these new scenes are and how smoothly they fit into the rest of the proceedings without disrupting the main story.  The humor and the romance is unharmed; indeed, it might actually all be enhanced with deeper themes and more serious drama running through its veins.  The character of Tom feels particularly enriched when his behavior, which seems to simply be the result of being spoiled and insensitive due to his wealth and class, thus marking him apart both from Fanny and his disinherited younger brother, is actually at least also in part due to devastating moral conflict with his family business.
The one down-side is that, while the new material never feels like it's working against the original writing, it does mean that, purely in terms of length and screentime, more must be trimmed away to make room.  As a feature film clocking in at under two hours, it was always going to be have to be a fairly abridged presentation of the full story.  Every time I watch it, I'm always struck when we reach their production of Lovers' Vows so quickly.  But that's the nature of condensing novels into features.  And though I don't personally agree, modern audiences might've been happy for the quicker pace.  It's certainly hard to remember to be upset about any of the missing scenes when they keep briskly moving from one delightful moment to another.  The cast - including Nobel Laureate Harold Pinter, Army of Darkness's Embeth Davidtz, Trainspotting's Jonny Lee Miller and Lindsay Duncan in a truly impressive dual role - just refuse to let your attention wander to anything off-screen for a moment.  And I've been dying to see them in HD.
2000 Miramax DVD top; 2012 Savor BD bottom.
So first of all, huzzah!  This is a legit 1080p HD image, with none of the weird interlacing or frame-rate issues I was dreading.  And it's not just the same decades-old master, free of the clumpy compression tied to DVDs... though I would have been happy with just that.  No, this is a newer much clearer and sharper image.  It also corrects the colors, getting rid of that ugly greenish hue that covered the DVD's image and naturalizing overblown contrast.  Note how the sunlight flares out on the Crawfords' faces on the DVD, but not the blu.  It's certainly not a cutting edge HD transfer; grain is super soft when it's there at all and I'm sure more detail could be pulled out of a fresh 4k scan of the original negatives.  And yes, this is a single-layer disc.  But it's a substantial step forward.  The framing corrects the DVD's 1.82:1 to a proper 1.85:1.  The DVD has a strip of dead space along the right-hand side, which they got away with back in the overscan days, but now needs to be fixed, which the blu has done.  It's less about revealing any more on the sides, though - the two discs are exactly the same in that respect - but matting vertically.  That, as you may've already noticed, has also included a distinct shift, showing more along the top and less along the bottom.  The adjusted framing actually turns this film's one nude scene back into a PG-safe moment:
2000 Miramax DVD top; 2012 Savor BD bottom.
Given that is a Jane Austen adaptation (albeit one with a few of its own ideas), I'm not sure this isn't actually fitting; but I'm sure for some thirsty viewers, this will be a deal breaker.

And it's not just PQ that's been updated in Spain.  The blu also bumps the DVD's 5.1 mix up to DTS-HD.  And no, it's Spanish subtitles aren't forced.  The only downside is that the Spanish blu drops the optional English subtitles and French dub from the DVD; but for proper lossless track, that's a happy trade.
Perhaps a less happy trade, though, comes in the special features.  Neither edition is barebones, but the DVD does still win in this category, primarily for one main feature: an audio commentary by writer/ director Patricia Rozema.  She gives a great commentary, with never a dull moment, mixing behind-the-scenes anecdotes with insight into her intentions and process adapting the novel.  For example, she suggests that Austen named Mansfield Park after the Mansfield Decision, a landmark ruling in the UK's abolition of slavery, prompting her own decision to add more material on the Bertram's ugly business in Antigua.  Also, Embeth Davidtz was afraid of horses.  It's all covered here!  The DVD also includes a fleeting, five minute featurette that at least gives us soundbites from the cast and B-roll footage, the trailer, and a bonus trailer for Emma.

Savor drops all of that... which makes sense, I suppose, since an English commentary for Spanish audiences would have to be entirely subtitled, thus probably holding less salable appeal.  But anyway, it's not barebones.  It essentially has two features.  One is nineteen minutes of interviews with the cast and crew.  However, this one's not English friendly.  Even though they're speaking English, they're dubbed over in Spanish.  The second featurette is English-friendly however; it's a short collection of B-roll footage, in English with Spanish subs.  It also has a Spanish trailer.  So, yes, it's a step backwards in special features.  But if you hang onto your old DVD, it's still a net gain where you'll be adding one new featurette to the rest of your extras.
And if you're still pining for a doggedly faithful Mansfield Park, may I remind you, that option has already existed for years before this movie.  There's the original 1983 BBC mini-series, readily available on DVD in the US separately or as part of Warner Bros' essential 2004 Jane Austen Collection boxed set, which is quite excellent.  While it doesn't have the glossy look of the 1999 film, it doesn't want for production values, with a robust cast and every interior and exterior location called for by the novel.  This isn't one of those earlier BBC productions where they're filmed live in a set that stands in for only a handful of rooms.  This is a full production, and I use that word in more than one sense.  At over four and a half hours, it's able to thoroughly reproduce the novel, where every other version has had to cherry pick scenes to indicate and suggest the themes the author was aiming for.  The humor is still here - in fact, there's much more of it - and the cast is wonderful, including Nicholas Farrell, who most of us will remember as Horatio in Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet, Sylvestra Le Touzel portraying Fanny as she was actually written, Anna Massey, Angela Pleasance and a small but fun appearance by a very young Jeremy Miller, this time playing one of Fanny's siblings.
2004 Warner Bros DVD.
Not that Warners' disc is particularly exceptional.  It's a single, double-sided fullscreen (1.33:1) flipper disc that's got some nasty (every frame) interlacing.  The discoloration around those candle frames betrays its videotape origins.  With an old television show, you can't expect IMax quality, but when you look at what, for example, Network recently did with Monty Python's Flying Circus, well... that kind of extensive restoration obviously wasn't done here.  Though it at least the DVD doesn't seem to be quite so swamped in natty video noise as some streaming versions I've seen are.  I'd be very curious to see if the UK discs at least do away with the interlacing.  And of course it's completely barebones, though it at least offers up optional English subs as captions, and the original mono track is reasonably clear.

It's certainly very watchable, and the series is maybe a bit flat, but still quite excellent and by far the most faithful.  ITV did also create a version of Mansfield Park in 2007, which is the most readily available on DVD and blu, but unfortunately, it's the worst of both worlds.  It's again cut down to feature length, losing so much of the book, both in terms of literal scenes and in its tone and character.  It was at least shot in colorful HD, but it drops the ball (not metaphorically... I mean the ball the Bertrams throw for Fanny in the story), Miss Price's hometown and pretty much anything else that couldn't be filmed quick and on the cheap.  And it doesn't have its own ideas like the 1999 version either.  It's just a sort of empty shell of Mansfield Park.  Plus the actress they cast as Fanny, well, I can only guess none of the Kardashian sisters were available and she was their back-up.
But fortunately, between everything the 80s and 90s versions provide, we already get all the Mansfield Park we could ask for on screen.  And with Savor's blu, we even get a pleasing HD presentation that I'm happy to report exceeds my expectations, something I'm now very glad to have in my collection.  Absolutely money well spent.

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