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Where Angels Fear to Tread
Director: Charles Sturridge
1992, 112 minutes, PG
Like Henry James, E.M. Forster took the clash of cultures as an abiding theme, be it Brits wreaking havoc on the Continent or the Subcontinent, or upper-class English lording it over their less privileged countrymen. If James' chief concern was psychological, Forster's was social; he came on the scene a few decades after the Master at a time of thunderous industrial and economic change, and trained his gently searing eye on the essential insidiousness of the class system and the British sense of entitlement.
Forster's elegant novels, written in the first quarter of the 20th century, went largely unfilmed until the 1980s, when he suddenly became a source as hot as Stephen King (albeit for a different audience). David Lean's "A Passage to India" kicked off the Forster fete, followed by three Merchant-Ivory productions: "A Room With a View," "Maurice" and the masterpiece "Howard End." Sneaking into the pack was "Where Angels Fear to Tread," made by London Weekend Television but released theatrically in the U.S. and elsewhere in 1992.
Based on Forster's 1905 debut novel, Charles Sturridge's "Angels" is less sweeping, more short-story-seeming than the other films, but it's no less compelling or heartfelt, and its cast is of the first order. Free-spirited thirtysomething widow Lilia Herriton (Helen Mirren) is off to Italy to find love and adventure, which leaves her stuffy in-laws nervous lest her flamboyant behavior bring shame on them back home in England. Things do go about as badly as the Herritons fear when Lilia promptly marries a 21-year-old Italian dentist (good lord!), gets pregnant and dies during childbirth. Siblings Philip and Harriet Herriton (Rupert Graves and Judy Davis) rush to Tuscany -- not to see to Lilia, but to whisk the infant boy back to England for a "proper" upbringing. More tragedy follows, caused irrefutably by the Herritons' xenophobia, while there is also a romantic component involving Lilia's British chaperone (Helena Bonham Carter), the handsome young Italian widower (Giovanni Guidelli) and Philip Herriton.
Director Sturridge, a veteran of Brit lit adaptations with "Brideshead Revisited," "A Handful of Dust" and the Ted Danson "Gulliver's Travels," gets the right notes out of his actors, with Graves and Davis particularly nailing Edwardian priggishness at its most comic and vile. Cinematographer Michael Coulter's work in the Italian countryside is breathtaking in the way of Kenneth Branagh's 1993 "Much Ado About Nothing"; a shot of the afternoon sun reflecting on a yellow stucco building has you-are-there immediacy. The wonderful score is by Rachel Portman, who has done similarly lush work for such films as "Emma," "Chocolat," "Mona Lisa Smile" and Roman Polanski's "Oliver Twist."
The beautifully shot movie comes to DVD from a pristine source, with all its vibrant colors intact and free of dirt and scratches. However, on my main player, a JVC code-free machine, there was significant horizontal "streaking" in the first half of the movie when actors moved across the screen or when the camera panned: figures would be trailed by lines, as if they were comic strip characters drawn to show they were running. This problem was less apparent on another, Region 1 machine as well as on my portable player.
The picture is presented in its original theatrical 1.66:1 widescreen ratio, with black bars on all sides. There are three audio options: DTS 5.1 Surround, Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround and Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo.
The main menu features still photos and music from the film. It offers options for sound, scene selection (12 chapters) and the film's original American trailer (not remastered). There are no subtitles, closed-captioning or other extras.
Image Entertainment has done a service to lovers of English heritage cinema by finally bringing "Where Angels Fear to Tread" to disc. The ever-growing Helen Mirren Appreciation Society will welcome it especially, even though she has a limited Marion Crane-like role to play. The performances, writing and technical aspects are all topnotch. If there had been a commentary track or interviews, this DVD could have rise to Highly Recommended.