Braveheart captures the story of freedom fighter William Wallace (Mel Gibson) during 13th century Scotland. At first with William as a boy, we grow to embrace the Wallace family from the starting gate of our tale. As the younger of two boys under their father alone, Wallace must stick around and tend to the family farm while his father and brother ride off to battle for their land. When he looks towards the horizon the day after while doing his chores to see the weathered Scots without his father and brother, he knows the details almost instinctual.
Strategic choices were made for the casting at this point in the film, ones that light a poetic fire underneath Braveheart from the start. James Robinson delivers a gentle, evocative performance as the young William, giving us a wealth of subdued strength underneath his windswept demeanor. He connects brilliant with young Murron, a girl who silently brings him an impromptu gift at his family's funeral. This proves to be the last moments of innocence for Wallace though, as his uncle Argyle (Brian Cox) trots in following the funeral to whisk William away to a life of hardened education and training. Reluctantly, young Wallace agrees once he witnesses the beauty of bagpipes and the allure of a shimmering broadsword.
Braveheart begins, at this point, to grow into one of those films that crosses most barriers to ensnare movie lovers of all creeds. Galloping across the beautiful Scottish countryside amidst beautifully expansive cinematography from director of photography John Toll, Wallace returns to his home many years later. He begins to fix up his house, interacts with some of his family's old acquaintances, and rediscovers his young Murron (Catherine McCormick). Rapid romance doesn't sit terribly well with me with most films, but the instinctual progressions between William and Murron comes across with such warmth and honesty that it brims with earnest candor. Plus, it's in every way affected by the absorbing performance from McCormack, giving us welcome reason to see where Wallace's anger will come from.
Scotland is under oppressive control by the English under the horrible King Edward the Long Shanks. Patrick McGoohan gives an oddly provoking and unctuous performance as the King, giving us ample reasoning to despise him without sensing much of his strength. Through his whims and decrees, he invokes chaos and suppressed tyranny from corner to corner along his boundaries. From the loins of their master, his henchmen carry the same offensive clout at the lower levels through his kingdom. In a ramshackle attempt from these guards to rape Murron in the main town, William provokes an act of defensive aggression with the local English troops. Murron falls victim to the English repugnance; she is executed in a defiant display towards the citizens to show that uprising will be punished. With an empassioned man like Wallace, this act would undoubtedly lead to more than just a few choice words with the lord.
Braveheart tugs on your heart and dazzles your eyes with brilliantly evocative images through its quaint beginnings, then grows deliciously dirty as the epic tragedy gains momentum with ferocious passion and chivalric resolve. William's vigor transcends into an effervescent blend of vengeance and strife for Scotland's freedom from this oppression. You see him physically become Scotland, living and breathing purely for their sovereignty and nothing else, and you heavily empathize with him. His following soldiers, meticulously portrayed by a host of strong character actors led by Brendan Gleeson as Wallace's childhood friend and David O'Hara as the crazy Irish fighter, unabashedly support him, both out of respect and out of his writhing sympathy for Murron. Gibson's ruggedly charismatic performance as Wallace keeps him appearing famished and desperate - but never with wavering force.
As Gibson's film thunders forward with its haunting pipe-laden score and beautifully soiled cinematography, it becomes obvious why Braveheart's tale of billowing freedom works as well as it does. It's not a film that does one or two things superbly, nor is it a film that presents every cinematic element with infinite vigor. Instead, Braveheart's epic narrative and kilt-stained visual grandeur triumphs with every characteristic it engages through a poignant level of accomplishment. It's brutal, tragic, and altogether breathtaking.
That's not even including the grandiose battles, either. Famous for its "freedom speech" before a showdown with the English, Braveheart gives us a lot of suspenseful gory brutality, but with a twist. Sure, there's plenty of severance of limbs and blood splattered everywhere amidst the emerald lawns. It is within the context aside the brutality, however, that lifts these battles up from acts of flailing viciousness to intriguing stratagems. Amidst backstabs and trickery through the struggles between the English and the Scots, the clanking of swords becomes much more rewarding and engrossing.
It's an undeniably potent story, one with love and honor's boiling strength raging at its core. Aside the main love story, we get a taste of the inner conflicts within the English camp as well. The formerly French Princess of Wales, portrayed with incredible charisma by Sophie Marceau, struggles to build a relationship with her potentially homosexual husband, the Prince of England. She yearns for her own freedom from the reigns of different kinds of English oppression and, in connections with William Wallace, provides one of the few glimmers of purity and beauty through her aid towards the Scots.
Full of layers and complications, Braveheart is surprisingly straightforward until politics litter the storyline in the final act of the film. Through the blossoming love and the exploding warfare, we're kept on the edge of our seat until the political agendas of other Scotsman lower our nerves. These complications, involving Robert the Bruce (Angus McFayden) and his family's lineage, are downshifted and intentionally slower in pace. Braveheart's fuming ferocity becomes throttled down amidst this, but in good ways that still maintain our interest. It gives us a breather leading up to the film's gut wrenching and evocative finale that, to upmost honesty, never ceases to swell a tear or two under these eyes.
Braveheart's purely one of the most absorbing and compelling epics of recent memory. Filled with outstanding performances, unrelenting visual splendor, and a throbbing heart fueled by freedom's swan song, Gibson's film rages with the animalistic strife to obtain the impossible - freedom for David underneath a domineering Goliath. As director and star, Gibson intricately assembled this feature into something of a grand tour de force. Braveheart rises up from being nothing more than a finely assembled picture through its strongly grounded disposition, fluttering humor, and amiable characters. Anybody can make a beautiful epic that achieves admirable potency; very few, however, can craft a three-hour story of love, malice, and freedom that breezes by with the drop of a hat and makes us want to come back time and time again for repeat emotional torment. It'll likely never lose that vigor in its gut wrenching core.
Paramount equips this highly anticipated Special Collector's Edition of Braveheart in a standard double-disc keepcase with attractive cover art, which looks much better in person than it does through images online. It comes with a raised cardboard slipcover, textured in all the brown spots and somewhat shiny in all the other portions. Both discs, however, are standard Paramount protocol with solid silver coatings and the title etched into the material. Here's a nice idea before you rid yourself of the old disc: the chapter listings on the new disc are identical to the old. Therefore, that nice booklet insert that you've got with your first edition of Braveheart will fit nicely with this insert-less presentation.
Video and Audio:
The first edition of Braveheart presented the film in its 2.35:1 widescreen image. Much like with Paramount's initial DVDs, it's not a terrible product in quality. Braveheart was anamorphic and solid with detail, but it suffered a lot from older compression technologies that gives it a very digital feel. Plus, there are several specs and dust scratches all across the print. Most importantly, the image comes across as very cold with a lack of saturation.
This Braveheart: Special Collector's Edition remastered image is an exceedingly solid step forward. Presented in the same theatrical aspect ratio, this image accomplishes a lot with a much cleaner presentation and only a few qualms. First off, there are several visual differences when compared to the original disc:
The first that will stand out is the color replication, as the new disc really screams with a new, full palette. Screenshots don't do the new print justice; saturation is dominant here. Most importantly are greens and blues. The grassy hills and forested areas pack a punch with a wide range of greens, olive and jade alike. At a few points across the film, however, the greens seem like they might pop a little "too" much, seeming a shade unnatural even though they look striking. Blue shades really pop as well, from the colors in the sky and water to the bold facepaint William Wallace wears. Furthermore, the range of colors is widely expanded across all palettes, lending further ranges in small things like the colors in clouds to brown shades in Wallace's hair.
Secondly, it seems like the new image has been squeezed at the top and bottom, lending more of a natural face shape for all parties instead of the somewhat stretched look from the original. In turn, there seems to be a hair-line amount of material on the sides that may be clipped off through slight reframing, but it's to such an incredibly minuscule amount that it's only noticeable when under extreme scrutiny. Blended with newly invigorated flesh tones, each character's presentation feels much more natural.
Third, the print is, in general, much cleaner. The digitization seems pretty close to a mute point, looking quite solid for a modern disc with a three hour film and several language tracks included. Dust and scratches are almost completely void, though I spied a few speckles here and there. When watching the film on-screen, this new transfer looks splendid. It feels like it might be a shade on the darker side of things and, at times, the colors seem a little overboard with saturation, but overall it's a pretty impressive visual presentation and undoubtedly one of the stronger selling points of this disc.
Whether Braveheart's Dolby 5.1 audio mix is the same as the original mix, however, is a murky point. Most of the bass levels and verbal clarity sound strikingly similar, though they boast more precision and strength. It's possibly because of the extra space rendered with the other supplements scraped onto the other disc. Undoubtedly, the new DVD is mixed louder, as it sounds like the volume has been marked up a few notches at stock level.
The audio mix is very strong, though; surrounds are effectively used, giving the film a hearty range that sounds a bit better than the original. It doesn't push boundaries with fidelity, but overall the expansiveness sounds solid. Scenes that take place in larger, echoing spaces also hold more spacious depth. The lower frequency bass channel gets plenty of action with the throbbing of drums, the crashing of swords, and the eruption of fire at several points in the film. Paramount's new Special Collector's Edition of Braveheart sings with brighter tones and deeper lows than the first disc. French 5.1 and Spanish 2.0 language tracks are available, as are subtitles in English, French, and Spanish.
Commentary from Director / Producer Mel Gibson:
On Disc 1, we've got the same Mel Gibson commentary as on the original 2000 release of Braveheart. It's an informative, laid-back track that gives a decent amount of humorous insight ... when giant pauses aren't filling the speakers. Gibson can be very well-spoken and amiable, and that still comes through in his sparse comments and speckles of curiosity on this track.
A Writer's Journey:
One of the most interesting points of this disc is this conversation included with Randall Wallace, the author of the Braveheart script. The connection with the last names is no coincidence; Randall Wallace is a descendant of the Scottish hero. His passion lies in the discovery of his history. Hearing him speak about crafting the script, from his techniques with the history to the theological connotations with the film, is quite intriguing.
Alba Gu Brath! The Making of Braveheart:
Paramount has thrown together a new three-part Making of Feauture set, separated into three portions: Reviving a Genre, The Heat of Battle, and Worth the Fight. All the featurette segments are anamorphic, though most of the behind-the-scenes footage was shot in full-frame. Featuring a slew of new Gibson interviews and a lot of compelling off-camera pieces, every segment carries a wealth of interest:
Reviving a Genre covers the original conception of the film, from Gibson's agreement to both write and direct Braveheart to some really sharp commentary on his director of photography, John Toll, and other members of the cast. One great point is to hear Gibson talk about elements in footage from 1995, like the score, then see cuts of production footage being cut at that time, such as James Horner recording the majestic choir boys' song from the film.
The Heat of Battle covers similar elements as the Reviving a Genre, but it focuses directly on the battle sequences. We return to the editing room floor with Gibson and his editor, Stephen Rosenbaum, to clip together these fantastic scenes. Gibson concentrates on the editor's efforts a lot in the room. He also gives a lot of emphasis on the length of shooting the intense fights, as well as the strategy inside the battle and with conceiving them outside.
Worth the Fight focuses on Gibson's appreciation for the entire filming process during Braveheart. It talks about little things, like the speed of getting shots taken care of, and mentioning the times in which Gibson got aggravated. It's a heartfelt piece that really displays the achievement well. Also, it has a lot of great behind-the-scenes quips that include warm little bits from Gibson and a few of the other crew members. But the core of it talks about Gibson's strife and drained persona throughout the shooting process. It gets a little cheeky and self-important, but still very strong.
Tales of William Wallace:
This fairly in-depth piece describes the life and separation of fact and fiction of Scotland's William Wallace. The piece talks about the book "The Wallace", an epic poem about William's adventures. It features a lot on historical accuracy, both with him and his enemies, and how iconic the historical figure has become. Commentary is included from Gibson and script writer Randall Wallace. Plus, it includes a lot of great geographical shots and relic captures of Scottish statues of Wallace.
These interviews involve a little more in-depth material than typical marketing fluff for the film, but not a lot more. It features every major player from the film except Mel Gibson. This includes everyone from James Robinson, the young William Wallace, to Patrick McGoohan and Peter Hanly, the king and prince Edwards of England.
Also included are a short Photo Montage which features a lot of very solid shots from the production of the film, as well as the original two Trailers from the old disc, once again non-anamorphic. Interestingly, the trailers are the only non-anamorphic items of the entire disc.
Without question, Braveheart is an epic masterwork from the directorial eye of Mel Gibson. Great characters, fantastic visuals, and a hearty, poignant story make the tale of William Wallace worth revisiting time after time. Braveheart, in itself, is nothing short of a magnificently enjoyable slice of brutal splendor that comes with ridiculously high recommendations.
Paramount's newest edition of Braveheart is a teetering recommendation. Based on price, the quality of the extras, and the solid boost in visual and aural properties, this new disc comes Highly Recommended. Bear in mind that if the disc didn't include the initial two featurettes (the interview with Wallace and the Making of Featurette) and was priced at a higher tag than $20, then it might just be a very firm recommendation. Instead, it's a great edition of the film with very solid transfer specs and a reasonable price tag, so the recommendation for this Braveheart: Special Collector's Edition gets edged up to Highly Recommended.
Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site