Introduced as a 'story of ordinary people', Anthony Asquith's Underground masterfully balances the light and dark sides of city life to evoke the daily existence of the average Londoner better than any other film from Britain's silent canon.
The BFI National Archive has restored the film using the latest photochemical and digital techniques and present it here with a newly commissioned score by Neil Brand.
BFI presents Anthony Asquith’s 1928 silent film Underground on Blu-ray in its original aspect ratio of 1.37:1 on this dual-layer disc. The high-definition transfer is delivered in 1080p/24hz.
The transfer has been made from multiple sources: what’s left of the original negative, a 35mm nitrate fine grain master, and another master positive found in France in strong shape.
It can be obvious when we make jumps between material with the image going from sharp to soft and out-of-focus in a quick cut but past this the restoration job is impressive (even more so after one views the restoration demonstration.) The restoration hasn’t removed every issue of course, as one shouldn’t expect, and some issues remain like pulsating, flickering, scratches, what appear to be tram lines, and the like. But these imperfections are pretty mild and never distracting, and as seen in the restoration demonstration this film was in far worse shape than what we get here.
BFI’s transfer also delivers a pure and clean image, free of distortion and artifacts. While still limited by the source in places the transfer is sharp, delivering clean edges and a surprising amount of detail. Black levels are clean and shadow delineation is excellent, no details getting lost. It’s a surprisingly gorgeous looking presentation, far better than I would have ever expected, and it doesn’t lose the look of a film from 1928, a concern of all of those involved. I can only imagine this is the best the film has looked in decades.
(The Blu-ray is region free and should play on all Blu-ray players.)
A silent film, BFI includes two scores to accompany the it. The first, presented in both DTS-HD 5.1 surround and 2.0 PCM stereo, presents a live recording of a score by Neil Brand. The second is a score by Chris Watson, which goes more in the direction of creating sound effects. It’s presented in 2.0 PCM stereo. For Brand’s score I only listened to the 5.1 version.
Brand’s score is supposedly from a live recording and the notes in the booklet point out that there may be noticeable issues because of this but I didn’t notice any distracting moments. The sound quality is excellent, spreading beautifully through the environment with some subtle bass. Volume levels and range are also notable. Watson’s score is more subtle and lacks powerful moments, but audio quality is also strong and doesn’t present any issues.
In terms of style in quality I do prefer Brand’s, which is definitely far more dynamic, but neither track presents any problems and it will come to personal taste in the end.
The Blu-ray disc includes a few supplements starting with a 9-minute restoration demonstration. The piece is more than a simple before/after comparison, getting heavy into the technical details of restoring the film, including the various photochemical processes the film prints initially went through. We then get some demonstrations from the digital side of things. It’s an absolutely fascinating documentary and increases one’s appreciation in the amount of work that went into this release’s presentation.
The Blu-ray then closes with a couple of other videos: The Premier and His Little Son presents 39-seconds of footage shot between 1909 and 1912 of a young Asquith with his father at an air show, followed by Under Night Streets, a rather fascinating 20-minute short from 1958 about the workers who have the thankless job of cleaning up the Underground stations in the short time frame when they’re closed. Both features are presented in high definition.
The dual-layer DVD, also included, presents a standard-definition presentation of the film, as well as all of the features on the Blu-ray. The DVD also presents a few exclusive features starting with the silent A Trip on the Metropolitan Railway, a piece shot in 1910 to show off the new electric line. Scenes at Piccadilly Circus and Hyde Park Corner is over 5-minutes worth of silent footage featuring new developments in the Underground at the time. It then concludes with Seven More Stations, which appears to be a 12-minute film contracted by the government in 1948 to introduce new stations that were opening. It also covers how the stations are being built in what used to be underground munitions factories. The first two films deliver interlaced standard definition transfers, while the last film is presented in a progressive transfer. As usual BFI has dug through their vaults and found some absolutely wonderful material to include with this release.
Checking the DVD it appears to be region free, but the content is in PAL, so North American viewers will need equipment that can handle the format.
BFI then includes one of their typically great booklets, featuring an essay by Bryony Dixon on Asquith and the film, an interesting piece by Christian Wolmer on the rather fascinating history of the London Underground system and its construction. Simon Murphy then offers a piece on Asquith’s work in shooting in the Underground. We then get a bio on Asquith, notes on the score by Neil Brand, a quick bio for Brand, and then notes on the features. As always the booklet is a fascinating and informative read.
As usual the supplements aren’t loaded, but BFI has found some fascinating material and their booklet offers some terrific information on the film.
Another lovingly put together Blu-ray from the folks at BFI. It delivers a stunner of a presentation and a number of great features. It comes with a high recommendation.