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SPECIFICATIONS
  • 1.33:1 Standard
  • English PCM Mono
  • English subtitles
  • 4 Discs
FEATURES
  • Audio commentary on Brief Encounter by film historian Bruce Eder
  • New interviews with Noël Coward scholar Barry Day on all of the films
  • Interview with cinematographer-screenwriter-producer Ronald Neame from 2010
  • Short documentaries from 2000 on the making of In Which We Serve and Brief Encounter
  • David Lean: A Self Portrait, a 1971 television documentary on Lean's career
  • Episode of the British television series The Southbank Show from 1992 on the life and career of Coward
  • Audio recording of a 1969 conversation between Richard Attenborough and Coward at London's National Film Theatre
  • Trailers

David Lean Directs Noel Coward

Blu-ray
Reviewed by: Chris Galloway

Directed By: David Lean
2012 | Minutes | Licensor: ITV Global Entertainment

Release Information
Blu-ray | MSRP: $99.95 | Series: The Criterion Collection | Edition: #603
RLJ Entertainment

Release Date: March 27, 2012
Review Date: March 27, 2012

Purchase From:
amazon.com  amazon.ca

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SYNOPSIS

In the 1940s, the wit of playwright Noël Coward and the craft of filmmaker David Lean melded harmoniously in one of cinema's greatest writer-director collaborations. With the wartime military drama sensation In Which We Serve, Coward and Lean (along with producing partners Ronald Neame and Anthony Havelock-Allan) embarked on a series of literate, socially engaged, and enormously entertaining pictures that ranged from domestic epic (This Happy Breed) to whimsical comedy (Blithe Spirit) to poignant romance (Brief Encounter). These films created a lasting testament to Coward's artistic legacy and introduced Lean's visionary talents to the world.

Discuss the film and Blu-ray here   


PICTURE

Criterion has put together a 4-disc box set representing the collaborative work of playwright Noël Coward and director David Lean, calling it David Lean Directs Noël Coward. The set includes the films In Which We Serve, This Happy Breed, Blithe Spirit, and Brief Encounter. Each film is presented in their original aspect ratios of about 1.37:1 in new 1080p/24hz high-definition digital transfers and each film appears on their own respective dual-layer disc.

In association with ITV Studios Global Entertainment and StudioCanal the BFI conducted a vigorous restoration of Lean’s first ten films, with funding from the David Lean Foundation. These restorations were used for all of the transfers in this set and were supplied to Criterion by ITV. All of them look exceptional.

The best presentations of the bunch may come from the two black-and-white films, In Which We Serve and Brief Encounter. Both possibly have the sharpest images with an extraordinary amount of detail in every frame. Both also show fantastic contrast that includes deep blacks and strong gray levels.

The other two, Blithe Spirit and This Happy Breed, are both Technicolor films and the source materials limit them somewhat. Pulsating can be more apparent in these two films and there is some noticeable colour separation in places. But overall these are some of the best looking Technicolor transfers I’ve seen on Blu-ray. Colours are saturated beautifully, looking clean and even fairly vibrant, but both keep their Technicolor look and it doesn’t look like any sort of “correction” has been applied.

All four films also come off very film-like. Film grain looks natural and clean in each one, with no compression noise or pixilation. I couldn’t detect any sort of artifact in any of the transfers as well. It should also be noted other than some minor blemishes and fine scratches there is little in the way of damage in the source materials.

Overall they all look wonderful, and everyone involved in the restorations and transfers can be proud of what they did. These are some of the more impressive transfers I’ve come across for films from this time period and they all look incredibly film-like.

Detailed reviews for each title:
In Which We Serve, This Happy Breed, Blithe Spirit, Brief Encounter

9/10

All Blu-ray screen captures come from the source disc and have been shrunk from 1920x1080 to 900x506 and slightly compressed to conserve space. While they are not exact representations they should offer a general idea of overall video quality.

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In Which We Serve

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In Which We Serve

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In Which We Serve

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In Which We Serve

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In Which We Serve

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This Happy Breed

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This Happy Breed

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This Happy Breed

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This Happy Breed

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This Happy Breed

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Blithe Spirt

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Blithe Spirt

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Blithe Spirt

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Blithe Spirt

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Blithe Spirt

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Brief Encounter

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Brief Encounter

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Brief Encounter

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Brief Encounter

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Brief Encounter

AUDIO

Each film comes with a lossless linear PCM 1.0 mono track and they all sound about as good as they can. Age and how they were recorded originally do limit them. A couple still present some noticeable noise in the background but they all present dialogue that’s easy to hear along with generally pleasing music. The tracks for the first three films can get a little edgy and are flat, but the track for Brief Encounter comes off a bit sharper and doesn’t have the same level of harshness that can appear in the other tracks.

Overall they’re all pretty average, with Brief Encounter coming out ahead a little bit, but they’re all acceptable and work for their respective films.

Detailed reviews for each title:
In Which We Serve, This Happy Breed, Blithe Spirit, Brief Encounter

6/10

SUPPLEMENTS

The four-disc set presents each film on their own dual-layer disc while spreading special features across all of them. Common across all of the discs are theatrical trailers along with a new interview, divided up, by Coward scholar Barry Day. The supplements overall look at each film on their respective disc but also offer in-depth looks at the creative forces behind the films, Noël Coward and David Lean.

The first disc presents In Which We Serve and similar to the other titles the first feature is the interview with Barry Day. The 16-minute segment found here has Day talk a little about Coward’s early career and the path that led him to write and direct (more-or-less) In Which We Serve, the eventual involvement of Lean, and then of course the casting (which included Coward in the key role.) Day defends the film as well, agreeing that it is a wartime piece of propaganda but that it still holds up well and presents themes that are still true today. Day is a bit dry I must admit but I enjoyed this interview and the others found across the box set.

A Profile of “In Which We Serve” is a 24-minute documentary about the film, one that I assume was made for a previous DVD release. It gathers many surviving members at the time for interviews (the doc was made in 2000) and includes actor John Mills, director of photography Ronald Neame, and producer Anthony Havelock-Allan, amongst others. It again goes over the early development of the film, but gets into more detail about how Lean came to be involved. It does sound as though Coward was to be the sole director on the film but after becoming overwhelmed by the technical side of things he brought on Lean (then an editor) to help, with Lean agreeing only if he got a co-director credit (which he did.) Apparently Coward let Lean take over completely part way through. It looks at the actors that appeared in the film (with Celia Johnson’s daughter, Lucy Fleming, reading writings by her mother about the film) and then gets into the technical aspects of the film from how they were able to simulate bullets hitting the water without hurting to the sets and models for the ship. Though ultimately nothing more than a talking-heads piece I found it an interesting making-of.

The next feature is audio-only but is possibly the strongest feature on this disc: Coward and Attenborough at the NFT is a 65-minute piece featuring Attenborough interviewing the playwright on December 14th, 1969. It’s a mix of Attenborough asking Coward questions while audience members shout out their own questions from time-to-time. Unfortunately audience questions are hard to hear so you have to piece together what the question was based on Coward’s answer or a comment made by Attenborough. Overall Coward ends up covering his work in general, with some special attention paid to In Which We Serve and how he came up with the story. He also talks about his various plays and what would have been recent BBC productions of his work. And he also covers random subjects like why he has a Swiss residence. Coward of course makes for a wonderful interview subject and Attenborough manages to keep it entertaining and quick as host, making this a fairly breezy interview to get through. The piece plays over a photo of Attenborough in the film.

The disc then concludes with a theatrical trailer.

The second disc presents This Happy Breed and again starts with another portion of Barry Day’s interview. In this 15-minute segment he goes over the history of this particular “play” (the play was basically shelved and it didn’t have an actual run until around the time the film version was released) and the early development of the project. Coward originally wanted to play the Frank Gibbons part, but Lean wasn’t a fan of Coward’s acting style and instead wanted Robert Donat for the role. He turned it down and the role eventually went to Robert Newton, who Day doesn’t appear to be a fan of (and according to other supplements it sounds like there were general issues with the actor.) He talks about Coward’s presentation of the working class and looks at how Lean makes this film more cinematic in comparison to In Which We Serve, saying Lean actually makes the camera itself a character in the film. Yes, Day is a bit dry, but he manages to still keep it an interesting analysis of the film and play.

Following this is a lengthy 44-minute interview with director of photography Ronald Neame (found under a feature called “The Golden Age”,) recorded in 2010 just before his death at the age of 99. He talks about how he first came aboard on the production of In Which We Serve, recalling the production, some of its controversies (there were those upset by the fact that this film showed a sinking English ship as opposed to a sinking German ship,) and the technical issues that arose while shooting in the pool used for the film’s water sequences. He then talks about This Happy Breed (recalling how they made the film in “glorious” Technicolor but did everything to make it look drab,) makes his way through the other films in the set (Blithe Spirit and Brief Encounter) and then ends with him talking about his move to producer and producing Lean’s film Great Expectations. Neame offers a firsthand account on the productions while also offering more technical details than other supplements found in the set. It’s an excellent interview and I’m glad Criterion was able to get his input on these films and his work with Lean.

The disc then concludes with the film’s original theatrical trailer along with its rerelease trailer, which is fairly similar to the other trailer.

The third disc presents Blithe Spirit and its supplements also start with another portion of Barry Day’s interview. Here Day defends the film but admits that there are many not fond of it, which included Coward, who thought Lean had “fucked up” the best thing he ever did. Lean was also not a fan of the play and Day admits that Lean pretty much just “filmed the play” and points out the weaknesses. Day also talks about the original play’s ending, which differed a great deal from the film’s, which adds what I guess you could was a “happier ending”. Maybe. Judging by all of the negative energy that sounds to have been on set I’m amazed this film even turned out at all (even Harrison hated the script and disliked working with Margaret Rutherford.) Like every other interview in the set with Day he is again very dry but manages to still keep his pieces entertaining and informative. This interview is the shortest of the batch, running only 11-minutes.

Following that Criterion includes a 1992 episode of The Southbanks Show about Noël Coward, complete with horrendous 90’s television effects. The 51-minute episode is a typical biography, gathering new and archival interviews with friends, peers, family, scholars, and more, who all cover Coward’s long career. Included are interviews with actors John Gielgud, John Mills, director David Lean, his partner Graham Payn, and many more. The piece also includes older interviews with Coward himself (including video footage from the Attenborough interview that was only included as audio on Criterion’s In Which We Serve disc.) The episode begins with his childhood, where his mother was preparing him already to become a showman of some sort (Coward says he was “trained to be a show off.”) And then it gets into some of his early acting roles and then his move to a playwright, where he of course wrote himself his own roles. It looks briefly at his music, and the guy apparently couldn’t read or write music, and then his films during wartime, specifically In Which We Server and Brief Encounter. Despite the dated elements of the episode it’s a great addition offering a wonderful examination of the man’s life and work.

The disc concludes with the film’s theatrical trailer.

Surprisingly Criterion didn’t create any new audio commentaries for any of the films on this set, but Brief Encounter, which appears on the fourth disc, was originally released on Laserdisc with an audio commentary by Bruce Eder, which in turn was ported over to the DVD and now the Blu-ray. I realize Eder’s commentaries aren’t loved by all but I’ve always found them entertaining and informative tracks. He has a format that he sticks to on all of his tracks and it’s no different here. Eder likes to talk about shots and the look of the film, along with the narrative structure when appropriate (as it is here with the film’s flashback setup) but he seems to enjoy talking more about a film’s production history and the careers of its cast and crew. He covers the film and its development, the working relationship between Lean and Coward, background information on its actors, the play on which the film is based, the film’s score, and so much more. It does sound as though he has prepared notes but his track never comes off bland or dry and he adds a great amount of energy which keeps the track from becoming a chore. If you like Eder’s tracks it’s worth a listen but if you’re not there’s nothing here that will change your mind.

Barry Day’s interview on this one then runs 16-minutes and is probably where Day is at his most glowing. This film, as he states, marks where both Coward and Lean finally got used to film: Coward finally understood film structure and Lean understood he could convey so much with angles and framing. He talks about the play on which its based, Still Life, and points out some of the inside jokes found within the film, like the film-within-the-film title Flames of Passion, and goes over the casting of Johnson and Howard. As I stated with his other interviews found across the set Day is dry but manages to still keep his pieces engaging, offering a wealth of information and his own informative analysis.

A Profile of “Brief Encounter” is a 25-minute piece created in 2000 by Carlton Media, I assume for their own DVD edition. It presents interviews with various scholars and members of the cast and crew. It’s a pretty by-the-book making-of, starting with the early development process of the film, the adaptation, the casting, and then its release. Celia Johnson’s daughter, Lucy Fleming, appears to read writings by her mother recalling the making of the film. It’s a generic documentary and doesn’t offer any surprises really but it’s worth viewing for those interested in the film’s production.

The last big supplement found on this set is then David Lean: A Self Portrait, a 58-minute program made in 1971 featuring the director recalling his work. Only the first quarter of the piece covers the films in this set and even then it’s limited only to In Which We Serve and Brief Encounter, packed in with other films like his Dickens adaptations and Summertime. A good chunk of the piece instead concentrates on his bigger epics, most notably Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia, and Doctor Zhivago. After talking about his early beginnings and the big breaks he got he then talks about his film career, the things he learned, how he directs a script, works with actors, and then goes into detail about location shooting and the costumes that appear in his films. He continues on about how he makes his films through the eyes of a “cutter”, already planning the edits in his head while shooting, all the while expressing his absolute love for the process of editing. Though again it has little to do with the specific films on this set it’s a wonderful reflection by the director and one of the best features on this set.

The supplements then conclude with the film’s theatrical trailer. The restoration demonstration found on the DVD for Brief Encounter hasn’t been carried over, but considering this disc has a completely different (and far more impressive) transfer it shouldn’t be a surprise it wasn’t carried over.

The set also comes with a booklet featuring a number of essays. Ian Christie provides an insightful one that goes over Coward’s and Lean’s working relationship. We then get essays by Terrence Rafferty for In Which We Serve, Farran Smith Nehme for This Happy Breed, Geoffrey O’Brien for Blithe Spirit, and Kevin Brownlow for Brief Encounter. Adrian Turner’s essay for Brief Encounter that originally appeared on the DVD (and I think Laserdisc) is nowhere to be found here.

In all we get a fairly comprehensive look at Lean’s and Coward’s collaborations, getting plenty of history on the productions along with an engaging look at the careers of each of these creative forces.

Detailed reviews for each title:
In Which We Serve, This Happy Breed, Blithe Spirit, Brief Encounter

8/10

CLOSING

This is an absolutely wonderful set from Criterion. It presents some stunning digital transfers along with a comprehensive collection of supplements spread across all four discs. This set comes with an incredibly high recommendation.


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