Three Handfuls of Dust

Here's one I've been obsessing over for a while: Evelyn Waugh's A Handful of Dust from 1988, based of course on the 1934 novel of the same name.  I've always had just the crappy, old barebones and fullframe DVD of this film, until relatively recently, when I decided to investigate to see if there was anything better out there that might better live up to this highly underrated (I mean, it was nominated for an Oscar and a couple BAFTAs in its day) dark dramedy.  And... there kind of is.  I'm at least happy to say I've come up with something to show for my quest, even if it still isn't remotely satisfactory.
A Handful of Dust stars Kristin Scott Thomas and James Wilby as an extremely British, aristocratic couple whose marriage is just a little short on romance.  If you're worried this is going to be some stuffy, English screed that plays like a homework assignment, though, you don't know your Waugh.   It's another of his grand, globe-trotting plots full of colorful characters and more of his usual satiric edge than you would've found in more famous but atypical Brideshead Revisited.  It's directed/ adapted by Charles Sturridge and Derek Granger, who did the original Brideshead series, so you know they're capable of tackling the subject matter.  And if Scott and Wilby appear a little milquetoast, how about this supporting cast?  Rupert Graves, Anjelica Huston, Judi Dench (who won a BAFTA for this), Alec Guinness and a small part perfect role for Stephen Fry.  This is one of those stories where you might think you know where it's all headed, but I guarantee you do not.
I've always loved this movie and wish more people appreciated it, but one of the things holding it back in that regard is probably its life on home video.  Dust was first released on DVD by HBO Video here in the USA in 2004, which self describes it self as "14:9 letterboxed inside a 4:3 frame.  That was quickly followed by a UK release from Prism Leisure in 2005, that also identifies as "14x9 non-anamorphic."  Back in the US, it was reissued by Acorn Media, included in a 2010 boxed set called The Evelyn Waugh Collection.  The case for that one just says it's "4:3 letterboxed."  That sounds like all the same stats re-phrased, but these discs are not in fact all the same, and actually the distinctions get pretty significant.  So let's dive in.
1) 2004 US HBO DVD; 2) 2005 UK Prism DVD; 3) 2010 US Acorn DVD.
So the first thing you'll likely notice is that the UK disc is wider than the others.  Well, no, actually, the first thing is probably that they're all non-anamorphic, which is a real bummer, since I left the negative space around the first set of shots.  But we knew that from reading the back of their cases, as I wrote above.  And they're all kinda 14x9 like they claim.  The US discs are both 1.52:1, or 14x9.24, and the UK disc is 1.66:1, or 14x8.44.  The US discs aren't exactly identical, but in terms of framing, it's the difference of a handful (see what I did there?) of pixels.  But the UK disc is definitely matting the bottom of the frame a lot tighter.  Whether that's a good thing is a little more complicated.  Doing a little online research confirms that this film should be 1.85:1, and the UK's 1.66 is closer to that than the US's 1.52, purely by the numbers.  But, eh, let's put a pin in that.

Other differences include the US discs being interlaced, though the UK is not, which is a big mark in its favor.  And, just for the record, I'll also point out that the interlacing between the two US discs is slightly different, not that it will matter much to anyone, but you can really see it in the second set of shots.  I was also surprised by the lack of NTSC/ PAL time difference between the US and UK discs.  They all play at the same speed, which leads me to guess that the US discs are interlaced because they're PAL-sourced on NTSC discs.  Anyway, something funny is going on there.  The US discs also have warmer color timing, which I think I prefer and does appear to be more accurate judging by Shout's HD source.  Yes, let's find that pin now.
4) 2023 ShoutTV streaming.
In an incredibly frustrating turn of events, A Handful of Dust is available to stream in 1080, despite us only having non-anamorphic SD versions on disc.  A grabbed a screenshot from ShoutTV, since it's free, and ahhh... why can't they give us this on blu?  It's 1.78:1, showing even more on the bottom of the frame (suggesting the US's framing was at least slightly more accurate in leaving that on-screen) and considerably more on the sides.  It's certainly not interlaced, and just looks considerably higher quality.  And bear in mind, this is just a screenshot I took of the stream in motion; not even the downloaded file.  So it would probably look even crisper on disc.  I don't usually bother comparing screenshots from streaming services, because it's not relevant to the physical media in discussion here at DVDExotica, but I've done it here to show what we're being denied (and to better judge the US/ UK framing).  How annoying.
Anyway, getting back to the discs.  The HBO DVD has mono audio in Dolby Digital with optional English subtitles (IN ALL CAPS).  The Prism DVD has both the original Dolby stereo track and a 5.1 remix, but no subs.  Acorn just has the stereo track and brings back the subtitles (now in proper sentence case).

Before you pick a favorite, though, there's another big difference between the discs.  The HBO DVD is completely barebones, and the Acorn DVD isn't really any better with just a couple ads for other Acorn releases.  Well, that is unless you count the fact that The Evelyn Waugh Collection also includes a whole second film on a second disc.  It's 1987's excellent made-for-British-television (A Handful of Dust, to be clear, was a proper theatrical release) Scoop, based on the 1938 novel, with Denholm Elliott, Michael Hordern, Chief Inspector Charles Dreyfus himself Herbert Lom and Donald Pleasence.  For the record, that disc is properly 4:3 but also interlaced.  The collection consists of two amary cases in a nice slipbox.
Prism's trailer.
But, in terms of proper extras, only the UK disc has our backs with a proper audio commentary by Sturridge, who has a lot to say and isn't exactly dishing dirt, but he's not afraid to be forthcoming either.  It's a good one.  At one point he expresses supreme confidence at being able to make audiences like an on-the-surface unlikable character, which he certainly pulled off for me here; but when you read criticisms of this film, that's usually where people get stuck.  Anyway, Prism also has some bonus trailers and a properly anamorphic theatrical trailer for the film itself, perhaps just to rub it in our faces.  Sure, Shout's still looks better, but why couldn't the rest of Prism's disc at least look like this?
So, at the end of the day, I'd give the slight edge to the Acorn DVD in terms of just the picture, and getting the Collection is a nice bonus if you don't already have Scoop.  Although if you have the HBO disc, it's hardly worth replacing it.  And you might very well consider opting for the UK disc instead because of the progressive transfer and commentary.  Or even buying that in addition to a US disc, since the good news about these DVDs is that they can all be had very cheap nowadays.  But man oh man, if Shout Factory is sitting on the home video rights to this film along with that HD transfer, I'm pleading with them to release A Handful of Dust on blu.  Preferably with the commentary.

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