Wednesday, February 9, 2011

LEGENDS OF THE FALL: Blu-ray (Columbia 1994) Sony Home Entertainment

A sprawling familial saga set against the stark naturalist beauty of Montana, Edward Zwick’s Legends of the Fall (1994) is based on Jim Harrison’s intimate 1979 novella. Spanning the years roughly between WWI and the early 1930s, the film features an all star cast of superior talents front-lined by prominent thespians, Anthony Hopkins, Aidan Quinn and Brad Pitt.

Hopkins is Colonel William Ludlow, an officer so utterly opposed to the U.S. government’s betrayal of native Americans that he resigns his commission to live in obscure harmony on a farm with One Stab (Gordon Tootoosis), his young daughter, Isabel Two (Sekwan Auger), hired hand, Decker (Paul Desmond) and his Cree wife, Pet (Tantoo Cardinal). Idyllic only by Ludlow's standards, William’s wife, Isobel (Christina Pickles) quickly retreats to the relative structure and gentile amenities of a more cultured San Francisco – leaving her husband to raise their three young sons in this harsh sprawl of wilderness.

Eldest, Alfred (Aidan Quinn) is the most responsible of the lot – an ambitious youth who is mature beyond his years. Middle child, Tristan (Brad Pitt) is a free spirit, versed in the way of First Nation traditions and surviving primarily on his primal instinct that, at times, is both savage and self-destructive. The youngest son, Samuel (Henry Thomas) is the hope and the promise of the Ludlow clan; a not terribly prepossessing man who has been professionally educated at Harvard but who is regrettably naïve in the ways of the world and under the constant scrutiny and care of his brothers.

Upon returning home from his studies, Samuel is accompanied by his wellborn fiancée Susannah Fincannon (Julia Ormond). And although Susannah is already engaged to Samuel, she very quickly becomes infatuated by Tristan’s dangerous side – a dalliance that leads to inner conflict since she also genuinely loves Samuel. For his part, Tristan remains aloof and, at times makes a concerted effort to quietly spurn Susannah's obvious attraction. In the meantime, Alfred has begun to harbour deeper affections for his brother’s bride as well.

Soon however, Samuel announces to the family that he has decided to join the Canadian Army against German forces in Europe – a move staunchly opposed by William. To provide certain assurances for their father that Samuel will remain safe, Alfred and Tristan also enlist, leaving Susannah in their father's care on the farm. Regrettably, Samuel is killed in action during a reconnaissance mission.

Tristan removes his dead brother’s heart to be sent home for an ancient burial custom, before suffering a disquieting nervous breakdown that forces him into self-imposed exile. Opportunistic to a fault, Alfred returns to Montana to propose marriage to Susannah. She respectfully declines. Her heart and affections have now shifted from her late lover to the absent Tristan. Upon his return home many months later, Tristan and Susannah become lovers – a move that Alfred, in all his petulant jealousy, chooses to regard as personal betrayal. He departs the family compound to make a name for himself as an aspiring politico in the nearby town of Helena.

Meanwhile, Tristan’s inner demons continue to erode his passion for Susannah. The two part company on a bitter note with Tristan traveling the world, searching for some sort of peace to ease his pain. Eventually, Tristan sends word to Susannah that he can never be for her what Samuel might have been, and furthermore, instructs her to marry another. Desolate, Susannah is comforted by Alfred, only to have his advances correctly perceived by his father as brotherly betrayal. In a rage, William demands that his eldest leave the ranch forever. He thereafter suffers a crippling stroke and Susannah stays behind to care for him.

So far, so good. But the last act in Susan Shilliday and William D. Wittliff's screenplay becomes slightly maudlin and overtly Shakespearean. Thanks in part to his spurious alliance with the O’Banion Brothers; John (Robert Wisden) and James (John Novak) and their band of Irish American gangsters, Alfred becomes a congressman, leveraging his popularity to wear down Susannah’s defences to the point where she concedes to be his wife.

Tristan returns to the ranch during prohibition and resurrects his father’s spirits. He becomes a bootlegger, falls in love with and marries the now adult Isabel Two (now played by Karina Lombard) with whom he eventually has two children. However, Tristan’s cutthroat rates as a bootlegger generate a quiet rivalry with the O’Banion brothers and this conflict of interest inadvertently leads to Isobel’s accidental murder.

As revenge, Tristan attacks the men responsible for Isobel’s death and serves time in prison. Later he and One Stab kill in Isobel’s honour; a move that sends the O’Banion brothers to a showdown on the Ludlow ranch. Susannah, who has been struggling to reconcile her own emotions after settling for Alfred when her heart still belonged to Tristan, commits suicide. Realizing where his own loyalties lay, Alfred takes his place by Tristan’s side against the O’Banion brothers who are killed by William, Tristan and Alfred in a gun fight worthy of the best western epics – thus ensuring that blood is indeed thicker than politics.

Legends of the Fall is exhilarating entertainment – its sweep and scope never dwarf the significant human saga set before its magnificent rural landscapes. The British Columbian backdrop of the Rockies standing in for Montana are breathtakingly captured by John Toll's stark, yet rustically lush cinematography. James Horner's score elevates the intimate story to near Biblical proportions, adding a majestic sweep and scale to the action.

There is both style and substance here, sharing equal billing and screen time. Casting is inspired with everyone performing above and beyond expectations. Anthony Hopkins, it goes without saying, is a professional through and through. Pitt, Quinn and Thomas share a genuine and palpable brotherly chemistry. Ormond is magnificently understated. This is movie-making at its finest. A must see/must own experience to be viewed and reviewed over and over again.

Sony Home Entertainment’s Blu-ray release is interesting, though not entirely welcomed. Though the image undoubtedly takes a quantum leap forward in reproducing both colour fidelity and advanced fine details throughout, the overall quality is neither as punchy nor as refined as I expected. Occasionally there is even a hint of flicker with colour timing appearing to be just a tad off between shots. Overall, the image is darker than anticipated, while the colour palette is more muted than pronounced. I cannot in good faith say that this is a bad transfer. I can, in all honestly, suggest that it is not of reference quality and this is indeed a shame for a film imbued with such resplendent cinematography.

The audio is a 7.1 DTS repurposing that evokes and elevates the visual grandeur seen on screen. Extras are all direct imports from Sony's previously issued DVD and include several vintage featurettes and a making of documentary, as well as an audio commentary, stills and the film’s original theatrical trailer. Recommended!

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)






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