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Braveheart -- Sapphire Series

Paramount // R // September 1, 2009
List Price: $39.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Thomas Spurlin | posted September 11, 2009 | E-mail the Author
The Film:

Photos in this review from Paramount's 2007 DVD
For roughly a decade and change after its initial release, Braveheart expanded outside the boundaries of its historical epic niche and into the annals of popular culture. Images of characters sporting half-painted blue faces became a staple in spoofs, cartoons, and other general TV shows, while more sincere references to William Wallace's multiple proclamations about "FREEDOM!" throughout the film slipped into inspirational speeches of all sorts. This was during a rebirth for the subgenre of blockbuster historical epics, which endured such saturation during that period that both viewers and the Hollywood machine became exhausted by one after another, which led to the classic subgenre being mostly shelved until audiences seem like they're ready for it again; as of now, the desire for superhero films has filled that "more, more, more" void. What separates this one from its contemporaries can be found in Mel Gibson's craftsmanship and fierce charisma in the lead role, along with the riveting story itself of pursuing a severance from royal authoritative rule, resulting in a triumph that's more than just the inherent grandeur and wrought emotion of its contemporaries.

Braveheart depicts the struggles 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 in its infancy. 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 what's happened without being told. Strategic choices were made for the casting at this point in the film, ones that light a poetic fire underneath the story from its start. James Robinson delivers a gentle, evocative performance as the young William, projecting subdued strength underneath his sullen demeanor. He connects brilliantly with young Murron, a girl who silently brings him an impromptu gift at his family's funeral, proving to be the last moments of innocence for Wallace as his uncle, Argyle (Brian Cox), trots in following the funeral to whisk William away to a life of hardened education and training.

At this point, Braveheart begins to grow into the kind of dramatic endeavor that speaks to movie lovers of all stripes. 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 candor that it overcomes those concerns. 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. She's the catalyst for the film's spirit: while the story's other objectives begin to move into place, attention falls upon how the pair of 'em build their bond as tradition, family ambition, and rebelliousness entwine into tender romance.

Scotland is under oppressive control by the English under the mustache-twirling King Edward the Long Shanks. Patrick McGoohan offers an oddly provoking and unctuous performance as the King, with 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, and from the loins of their master, his henchmen carry the same offensive clout at the lower levels through his kingdom. During a ramshackle attempt from these guards to violate Murron in the main town, William provokes an act of retaliatory aggression with the local English troops. In response, she falls victim to the English repugnance, and with an impassioned man like Wallace, that kind of act would undoubtedly lead to more than just a few choice words with the lord. Thus, the gears of war and revolt begin to turn.

Braveheart tugs at the heartstrings and dazzles the senses with evocative images through its quaint beginnings, then grows absorbingly coarse as the epic tragedy gains momentum through its spirit of independence and chivalric resolve. William's vigor grows into a smoldering blend of vengeance and strife for Scotland's freedom from this oppression, and the viewer can see him become a physical embodiment of Scotland itself, living and breathing purely for their sovereignty and nothing else … and one effortlessly empathizes 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 burgeoning freedom continues to work as well as it does, unleashing something expressive with every cinematic maneuver it pulls off. The film's epic narrative and kilt-stained visual grandeur triumphs through a poignant level of interwoven, meaningful components, forming into a brutal, tragic, and altogether breathtaking piece of work … and that's even before the film's grandiose battles. Famous for its "freedom speech" before a showdown with the English, Braveheart offers a lot of suspenseful brutality, with plenty of severed limbs and blood splattered along the emerald lawns. Yet, it's within the context aside the brutality that these battles are elevated from acts of flailing viciousness to intriguing stratagems, where, amid backstabs and trickery through the struggles between the English and the Scots, the clanking of swords becomes much more rewarding and engrossing.

Alongside the narrative of tragic love and the ensuing pursuit for liberty, Braveheart also offers glimpses behind closed doors at the inner conflicts within the English camp. The former French Princess of Wales, portrayed with incredible charisma by Sophie Marceau, struggles to build a relationship with her potentially gay 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, delivers one of the few glimmers of purity and beauty through her aid towards the Scots. While full of layers and complications, Gibson brings all this to the table as straightforward, coherent, yet volatile drama until politics complicate the final act, involving Robert the Bruce (Angus McFayden) and his family's lineage. Through this, the pace methodically downshifts to a slower tempo, built for reflection while deliberately suppressing the ferocity. Braveheart never loses its grip on the vigor established at its beginning, though, merely providing a breather leading up to a gut wrenching and evocative finale that, yeah, never fails squeeze a tear out of these eyes.

The Blu-ray:

With the introduction of Blu-ray technology, most aficionados have built a short list of "must have" titles. Braveheart assuredly has found a place on many of these lists (including yours truly), and Paramount knows it. In comes Paramount's "Sapphire Series", a collection of their best films presented in remastered high-definition presentations. At the Sapphire Series' introduction, Braveheart was paired with another acclaimed title, Gladiator, as the spearheads for this collection.

Adorning the Sapphire Series Blu-ray of Braveheart is a cardboard slipcover, sporting a glossy sheen and embossed lettering that makes the packaging really pop on the outside. It's a good thing the outside is impressive, because the discs have been given the same, bland silver-topped treatment as the 2007 Special Collector's Edition DVD (click link for comparison between standard-definition DVDs). A rebate form has also been included, good until 10/31/09 for $10 back if you purchased a previous edition of Braveheart.

Video and Audio:

Waiting for a Blu-ray release -- if you passed up on the fine Special Collector's Edition -- will surely pay off once you've gotten a chance to see Braveheart like this. Presented in its original 2.35:1 framing in a 1080p AVC encode, Mel Gibson's film is drop-dead gorgeous in this Blu-ray image. Every single element present will truly knock your socks off, including detail, contrast levels, maintenance of grain structure, and overall realism. The color timing mirrors that of the recent remastering, only it's far more balanced and accurate with much deeper black levels. One of the criticisms regarding the previous DVD was that the green shades seemed to pop a little more than normal. That obviously was due in large part to the rest of the palette being slightly pale in comparison, because every other color element balances beautifully against the crisp Scotland greens here.

Several jaw-dropping moments in Braveheart's visual treatment, aside from the endless barrage of incredible expanses of the Scottish mountainside. Though skin tones are, in general, impeccably handled, it's in the graceful scene where slow-motion shots capture the newly-married woman at the start of the film (Julie Austin) slowly walking towards the British soldiers that the first surprise came. Yes, the entire scene with young Murron and William Wallace was very impressive, but this one was unexpected. Similar properties -- and a similar "wow" factor -- can be seen in elements like Murron's hair during her conversation with William Wallace at the beginning, where it almost looks tangible, as well as moments where the redness in skin tones could be seen in her blushing. The next moment that really took me by surprise was the shots of the deer William Wallace is hunting near the beginning, which sported awe-inspiring life-like texture about the fur and surroundings. Along the way, many other sequences involving tightly-rendered details -- like the etching of details in King Edward I's crown and lacing on costumes -- all hold impeccable detail.

It was upon arrival on a sequence I've looked at many times over for differences in the past -- the scene featuring British heavy horsemen talking about issuing their "terms" -- that all of the massive refinements exercised on this image leaped out from this new print. Fine detail has been dramatically improved, noticeable in the chain mail armor and, while depth and dimensionality in wide shots showcase intense visual refinement. Colors in the distanced flags showcase much stronger hues, which naturally carries over to the blue shades in William Wallace's war paint and against the skies. Though bold, the color saturation never seem exorbitant. Metal grayscale elements in costumes deliver more than expected, showing contrast fluctuations in sheen that are more than convincing. Through a fine veil of film grain that preserves an amazingly film-like rendering, Braveheart never looks artificial or enhanced -- and, quite honestly, looks like it was photographed a week before this Blu-ray was released. Incredible is an understatement, as you'll be hard-pressed to find a visual treatment that comes this close to flawlessness any time soon.


Paired with this fantastic visual encode, Paramount have also given Braveheart a very hearty boost in the sound department with a robust Dolby TrueHD track. Continuing the trek upwards on the quality scale, this audio treatment tries its hardest to keep up with the video step-for-step -- and it does an excellent job. No complaints can be rattled off about the dialogue, as every ounce of those thick Scottish / English / French accents (though slightly less pronounced for the sake of filmic audibility) are crisp and very natural. It all stays well-balanced in upper to mid-range tones, rarely stepping down into a lower frequency for any vocals. Also, James Horner's score receives a very healthy boost in clarity and resonance, carrying back to the rear channels in stage-filling fashion.

With all of the special effects, from the clanking of blades to the robust blasts of fire, the TrueHD track maintains a lively, natural essence. Rattling chain mail and other metallic sounds jingle near the front, while the clanking of blades travels to the rear-channels for ambiance during the two intense battle sequences. Most of the activity to the rear involves the musical elements The lower-frequency punch coming from a warhammer takes the mid-range bass to task, as well as stretching downwards to the lower frequency just a bit. Probably the most effective uses of the LFE channel come from billowing fire (something that was intense in both the previous Dolby Digital 5.1 mixes) and in Wallace's haunting horse gallop near the end. With each hoof landing against the ground, both the mid-range and throaty lower-frequency channels receive quite a workout. A few of the effects are a little on the hollow side here and there, but overall there's VERY little to complain about here. French and Spanish 5.1 tracks are also available, along with English, English SDH, French, and Spanish optional subtitles.

Special Features:

Braveheart Timeline:
As a testament to the usage of Blu-ray's technology, this feature involves three timelines (Fiction, Production, and History) that have selectable features to read/watch. Some of them contain video, others photograph; they all, however, interconnect with each other in some fashion. The Fiction string serves kind of as a "control" to this whole equation, while the Production and History timelines offer material that correlate with the film's scenes. Though a lot of the supplemental material will be discussed later on, some other exclusive materials are also made available in these strings. If there's something that looks like it's missing from the following special features -- like the mentioning of James Horner's score, a huge core of the archival footage featuring Gibson and Rosenbaum editing, and almost all of the behind-the-scenes footage used for the Special Collector's Edition DVD making-of feature -- it's likely contained in this outstandingly-designed supplement.

Dimensional Battlefields of the Scottish Battlefield:
Exercising more of Blu-ray's innovative tech, this supplement features a computer-generated battlefield with chess pieces (queen, knight) that showcase opposing forces and their positions during the selected battlefield. Two of the battles, Falkirk and Bannockburn, offer navigational points directly on the battlefield, with video descriptions for several of them. Along with that, several of the other points in these two maps offer bulletpoint descriptions without video. Fergus Cannan, a specialist historian on the Highland wars, offers the video commentary. It's an excellent, attractive and interactive feature with just the right amount of complexity and ease of navigation.

Braveheart : A Look Back (1:00:23, HD):
Using reconstituted material from the Alba Gu Brath documentary on the standard-definition presentation with new interview footage with cast and crew, this hour-long series of three featurettes takes on a different flow than the previous piece. It's not more or less extensive - though some bullet points are missed that were covered in the previous doc - but more casual and amusing to watch than the previous piece. You'll recognize the interview footage with Gibson and writer Randall Wallace, along with new interview footage featuring editor Steven Rosenbaum, actors Brendan Gleeson, Sophie Marceau, David O'Hara, and James Cosmo, cinematographer John Toll, and others. It still mixes 2.35:1 material from the film with 1.33.q behind-the-scenes footage and 1.78:1 interviews, so it structurally feels similar.

It's easier to look at the whole she-bang as a complete piece, with each of the features as the "chapter stops". A Company of Equals takes a general structure, covering elements like editing, cinematography, and splashes of material about the score together with discussion about the actors. Some of the footage of Gibson sitting with Rosenbaum returns, as well as a healthy chunk of the making-of footage. The Sound of Laughter takes a humorous look at some of the lighter moments from the assembly of the film. James Cosmo discusses a prank played on one of the cast members, Gibson's feelings on the war paint, and Sophie Marceau's stumbling with her English on set. The Measure of a Film eases into discussion regarding the wealth of footage shot for Braveheart , as well as plenty of emphasis on the First Assistant Director, David Tomblin. Focus also falls on how Gibson and company build the epic battles, in ways revolutionizing their structure, as well as how it all drained Gibson of his energy. Then, the tail end of the feature covers the reception for Braveheart through test screenings, both positive and negative.

Smithfield: The Killing Fields (25:19, HD):
This featurette takes time to explore the city of Smithfield, coming across as a little bit of a PR piece to show that it's not the same place as it was at the climax of the film. It does discuss the grueling history of the town, then turns towards the attractions available there now.


Commentary from Director / Producer Mel Gibson (from SD):
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 (from SD, MPEG-2):
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.

Tales of William Wallace (from SD, MPEG-2):
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.

Also included are the original two Trailers (AVC) from the old disc, this time offered in high-definition! Keep in mind that the "Archival Interviews" haven't been included -- though some of them have been re-purposed.

Final Thoughts:

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.

Bar none, Paramount's Sapphire Series Blu-ray presentation of Mel Gibson's film is one of the best discs available on the market. Sure, it sounds extremely strong and carries dynamic supplements both old and new, but this 1080p transfer is really something to see for all home theater enthusiasts. It's a striking high-definition rendering of an endearing, sublime picture that easily earns DVDTalk's Collector Series marker. Bravo!

Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site
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