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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Daniel Deronda
Daniel Deronda
BBC Worldwide // Unrated // April 1, 2003
List Price: $24.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Holly E. Ordway | posted July 7, 2003 | E-mail the Author
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C O N T E N T
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A U D I O
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A D V I C E
Highly Recommended
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The movie

In anticipation of reviewing the 2002 BBC production of Daniel Deronda, I made a point of reading my copy of the novel, which I'd been meaning to get around to for a while. One of George Eliot's late works, Daniel Deronda balances on the cusp between Dickensian mid-Victorian melodrama and turn-of-the-century realism; the massive novel features an intricate plot while also trying to reach a new psychological depth. In this respect the novel Daniel Deronda doesn't entirely succeed; but what's more interesting is that as I was reading it, and noting both its successes and its failures, it occurred to me that the story might very well work better translated to the screen rather than the page. As it turned out, I was right. This is a film that is better than the original novel... by far.

The title character, Daniel Deronda (Hugh Dancy), is a sensitive young man whose ready access to wealth and a life of leisure, thanks to his adoptive father Sir Hugo (Edward Fox), has not dulled his eagerness to experience the world and to understand other people. As the film opens, Daniel observes and is fascinated by a beautiful young woman, Gwendolyn Harcourt (Romola Garai), whom we soon learn has a passionate and troubled history of her own. And soon Daniel becomes involved with another woman, this time on the other end of the social scale, when he rescues a destitute Mirah Lapidoth (Jodhi May) and is drawn into her world as well.

Daniel Deronda is certainly one of the best novel-to-film adaptations that I've seen. All the essential elements are included, both characters and incidents, and Eliot's own (quite modern) structure is adhered to; at the same time, the film skillfully compresses large stretches of the novel by allowing a single, well-chosen scene or series of images to carry the narrative weight of several similar scenes in the novel. In this way, and due in no small part to the outstanding performances of the actors, we are very quickly apprised of the personalities of the major characters, and soon we are eager to find out what will develop in their lives.

The whole success of Daniel Deronda pivots on the film being able to display the inner life of its characters: to expose the true nature of Gwendolyn Harcourt, Daniel Deronda, and all the others who are caught up in the wake of these two powerfully attractive figures. In the original novel, Gwendolyn is by far the most convincingly drawn of all the characters, dominating any scene that she's in; here in the film version, she is as captivating as ever, but this time in a more balanced way, because the other characters have a greater depth. Daniel himself comes across as a fully rounded character, filled with yearning for an indefinite future, with a passionate nature that is hidden beneath a calm exterior; Dancy brings him to life far more intensely than I would have imagined, given the relatively cardboard nature of his presence in the novel. I'd be remiss if I didn't mention as well how Hugh Bonneville handles a crucial role very effectively by making Mr. Grandcourt simultaneously compelling, convincing, and disturbing. All the actors turn in splendid performances, each one completely convincing and subtly nuanced; this is one film where we truly can see how what's left unsaid can be as powerful as what's said.

My favorite portion of the film is the first of the three episodes, which sets up the relationship between Gwendolyn and her suitor, the cold but apparently wealthy Mr. Grandcourt, as well as introducing the character of Mirah. The second and third episodes continue the thread of Gwendolyn and Mr. Grandcourt, but in these, the primary focus shifts to Daniel's growing interest in Mirah, her lost family, and the Jewish people in general. While this part of the film isn't quite as gripping as that dealing with Gwendolyn, it is still very interesting... and in a comparison to the novel's handling of the same material, it's possible to see just how skillfully the script has been created. The original novel bogs down badly in the second half, as Eliot spends an inordinate amount of time with political and philosophical issues, as well as trying (rather unsuccessfully) to develop Daniel's character more fully. In the film, the important issues are presented much more clearly, and by cutting out several minor characters entirely, the focus on Daniel's character development is much more effective.

Taken as a whole, the story is an extremely interesting one: I was "hooked" throughout the entire running time, and I was eager to see what would happen to all of the characters, from Daniel, Gwendolyn, Mirah, and Mr. Grandcourt to the minor characters such as Daniel's friend Hans. One of the best things about Daniel Deronda is that the ending is not predictable: More so than with her predecessor Dickens, Eliot is willing to take some chances with her characters, and to let them suffer, so the possibility of an unhappy ending for some, if not all, the characters is always a definite possibility.

Daniel Deronda is also visually gorgeous, both in cinematography and in sets and costumes. The late 19th-century setting is evoked with complete success, from the rich drawing rooms of the wealthy Sir Hugo Mallinger to the bustling city streets of the London Jewish quarter. The camera doesn't just rest its eye on these surroundings, but takes an active part, with many shots composed in an interesting and unusual manner, inviting us to see a meaning in the image beyond the mundane. The film opens with a wonderful shot of a spinning roulette wheel, and in fact returns to that shot later in the film; it's a memorable image, and by being so memorable it serves to enhance the effect later of Gwendolyn's lines about gambling in life as well as at the table.

This DVD release indicates that it contains 30 minutes of footage that was not originally shown on U.S. television. I can't imagine what could possibly have been cut from this extremely well-paced and tight production, so by all means, viewers should gravitate toward this complete edition. If anything, Daniel Deronda could have run longer than its current three and a half hours, if it had expanded slightly on some of the characters and situations; as it is, the film will keep you glued to your seat for the entire time, eager to see how things turn out.

The DVD

Video

Daniel Deronda is presented in a lovely widescreen anamorphic transfer at its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1. Colors and contrast are handled very well; the image looks rich and natural, with nice shading and detail. The cinematography plays around with color intensity and the overall tone of the image at times, with some scenes taking on a rich, almost oversaturated look while others are more stark; this is clearly an artistic choice that draws attention to the emotional content of the scene, and works very well.

As I'd expect from a 2002 production, the print is in impeccable condition, with no print flaws at all. Some slight edge enhancement is present, but it's never obtrusive. The one fault in the transfer is that dimly lit scenes tend to have a fairly high noise level, although more brightly lit scenes are quite clean. Considering the overall lovely appearance of the transfer overall, this really doesn't have much of an effect on the viewing experience, though; Daniel Deronda looks very good indeed.

Audio

The Dolby 2.0 soundtrack is more than satisfactory for the film, ably carrying both dialogue and music. We get a nice clarity of tone, with dialogue always crisp and understandable, and music correctly balanced with the other elements of the track.

Extras

There's not much here by way of special features: just cast and crew biographies and a photo gallery.

The menus are lovely, with a tasteful animation and theme music behind a clear, easy-to-navigate set of menus. Viewers have the choice of selecting an episode individually or choosing "play all."

Final thoughts

Daniel Deronda is an impressive achievement, with outstanding acting and great cinematography matching up with an intelligently adapted script to create a captivating film. Especially given its excellent DVD transfer, Daniel Deronda is highly recommended.

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