The Tales of Hoffmann Blu-ray Review

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A spellbinding treat for the senses that heralded one of the most majestic and influential high points in cinematic history

by Chris McEneany Mar 30, 2015 at 11:55 AM

  • Movies review


    The Tales of Hoffmann Blu-ray Review
    SRP: £16.00

    The Tales of Hoffmann Film Review

    Born in an age of studio defiance and boundless imaginative wit and creativity, Powell and Pressburger’s lavish and fantastical 1951 treatment of Jacques Offenbach’s opera, The Tales of Hoffmann, hits all the right notes in a spellbinding treat for the senses that heralded one of the most majestic and influential high points in cinematic history. The trio of stories contained here chronicle the obsessive devotion that the hero-poet Hoffmann (Robert Rounseville) has for the three loves in his life that conflicted with his art. Seen as a mechanical dancing doll (Moira Shearer), a Venetian courtesan (Ludmilla Tcherina) and the tragically ill daughter of a mad conductor (Ann Ayars), these infatuations are all manipulated by the sinister guises of the incredible Robert Helpmann, who appears in each tale with motives of his own.
    The lavish set design and costumes, inspiring music and choreography, and the incredible visual invention on display are legendary, ensuring that the film has been justifiably hailed as a masterpiece. Bizarrely, an affectation for opera is not at all necessary to savour its many treasures, as this is pure cinema at its most fabulous and entrancing. As well as being transferred from a beautiful 4K restoration, this version also includes newly discovered sequences from Act Three and the Epilogue, which were missing from previously released versions of the film, but were found in the nitrate material held at the BFI. Without a doubt, The Tales of Hoffmann is a stunning experience that cannot fail to enchant. Unadulterated magic.

    Blu-ray Picture Quality

    The Tales of Hoffmann Blu-ray Picture Quality
    There can be no denying that, for some people, this will be the release of the year... or, at least, the transfer of the year.
    To be perfectly honest, with a transfer of this calibre, my own opinions regarding its merits are possibly moot. I could simply regurgitate the official details describing how this version came into being, and that should, by rights, be enough to guarantee it a place on the shelf of every cineaste.

    Beautifully and painstakingly restored in 4K by The Film Foundation, under the supervision of Martin Scorsese and the loving hands-on care and attention of the great Thelma Schoonmaker and veteran-restorer Ned Price, Tales was heavily praised during its theatrical re-release and can now expect the same lavish plaudits from its home video curtain-call. Although it has seen many previous releases, the film can simply never have looked this good. For a kick-off, this transfer hails from the original camera negative, which was in remarkably good shape to begin with, and it also includes new material discovered at the BFI and put back into the film. But, for many, it is the pedigree of those involved with its restoration that is enough to seal the deal.

    Well, the resulting Blu-ray’s AVC 1.37:1 picture is nothing less than stellar. You could thumb through the Thesaurus and pluck out every dream-coloured adjective to describe its glorious three-strip Technicolor opulence... and probably still not do it justice. The palette, detail, depth and sheer walloping level of rapturous jaw-droppage on offer here conspire to produce an image that is truly spectacular. The film’s innate theatricality obviously lends itself to such heightened and lush colours as you will find here, but what really brings Tales to vivid, retina-seducing captivation is that this is not a gleaming Pixar production, but a live-action, stage-bound recreation of opera’s most flamboyant outing... from 1951. So, to see such a level of intricacy from an old movie that was not manufactured on a computer is breathtaking. Of course, we have had some amazing vintage restorations arriving on Blu over the years – Gone With The Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Ben-Hur, Lawrence of Arabia – so aficionados will already be expecting great things.

    But I’ll wager that even the most exacting and high-standard of obsessives will simply sit back before this and think, “Ahhh, job done.” I am not the film’s biggest fan, although I do adore much else of Powell and Pressburger (especially Black Narcissus and A Matter of Life and Death), but this is the sort of treatment that really allows even a fringe interest like mine to blossom into full-bore adoration like never before.

    The resulting Blu-ray’s AVC 1.37:1 picture is nothing less than stellar.

    From the sets to the costumes, from the make-up to the mischievous gleam in Helpmann’s eye, to the intricate art design and the sweeping majesty of the camerawork, this is eye-candy of the most fantastically ardent. Detail is, as you can no doubt guess, astonishing. If people like Thelma Schoonmaker, who has studied the film for decades and screened it many times over, can suddenly spot things like embroidered eyes, scorpion clasps and butterflies for the first time, then just imagine what previously hidden delights await you. It is consistently excellent, with no print damage, no DNR, no ugly digital warts or overtly egregious manipulation. The grain looks perfectly natural and film-like. Edges are smooth and un-sharpened. The image boasts true depth and immaculate contrast, with the sets looking vividly spacious and luxurious. Black levels are deep and betray no watering-down, and nor do they lose any information within themselves.

    Vintage, it may be. But The Tales of Hoffmann looks like it was filmed yesterday, albeit with that intoxicating Technicolor decadence that belongs from a different time and style altogether. Yes, the colours have had to be retimed to match the original theatrical print, but with the calibre of people who worked on each glorious strip, do you really think that they might even conceivably have dropped the ball? Even for a second’s worth of footage? Come on. The palette is extraordinary. Even the most minute of props and costume decoration is treated with colours that stand out. Gold speckles across the back of a jacket that skitter and dance as the wearer moves into shadows. Wafting blue drapes that flutter across an azure or rouge painted sky. The shimmering makeup on performers’ faces and, best of all, the candles that become dazzling jewels in a magician’s hands. Yes, the big things are beautifully saturated, but these smaller elements never fail to catch the eye.

    Is it really that good? You bet. It is impossible to imagine it looking any better without your own cinema screen. So, considering the film’s vintage and the volume of work that has gone into it, there really is no alternative to awarding this transfer top marks.

    10 out of 10, folks. This is exquisite.

    Blu-ray Sound Quality

    The Tales of Hoffmann Blu-ray Sound Quality
    Studiocanal’s UK disc has a 2.0 LPCM audio track that is, again, fabulously restored. Sadly, given the limitations of the source and the rather blunt and localised, though still finely rendered music and vocals (no dialogue, just singing), I cannot really provide a wealth of detail to gloat over.

    However, I can say that it all sounds wonderful. Voices are clear and full of nuance, range and power. They do not succumb to shrillness and nor do they come across as being contained in a box from yesteryear. They are unmistakably from a time gone by, there is no getting away from that, but the passion and the clarity with which they roar forth is marvellously produced and definitely helps to bring the film to life.

    The music of Jacques Offenbach’s opera, given a rousing rendition by The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, under the baton of the Sir Thomas Beecham is vivid, bold and strong. This, again, aches with clarity and detail. The orchestral movements are seamless, smooth and unmolested by age or deterioration. High strings and high voices never fail to gleam. Symphonic depth or baritone lung-dredging is never sacrificed to crackle, murk or indistinctiveness. Now, obviously, none of this could compare to a modern produced opera in terms of power and range and room-filling aural splendour, so you have to keep the restrictions of its vintage in mind. But there really isn’t any cause for complaint with this superb presentation. I had the sound cranked up, if only to test the track for tininess and warble, and it continually delivered the goods without such hindrance.

    Terrific stuff, once again. A strong 8 out of 10.

    Blu-ray Extras

    The Tales of Hoffmann Blu-ray Extras
    Hmmm... considering the prestige of this title and the work that has gone into its restoration, I would have thought the release would have a bit more in the way of extra features to complement it.

    Gone is the commentary that adorned the Criterion release which, by many accounts, was brilliant. In its place, we have a couple of interviews that, whilst, nice to have, really just serve as fawning introductions to the movie.

    Scorsese gets to say why he loves it in his official Introduction. Though, really, this is all very well known and understood already. What I noticed most of all was how he has suddenly come to resemble Woody Allen!!!!!

    There is a stills gallery and the film’s trailer, but, by far, the most interesting supplement is the interview with Thelma Schoonmaker, who takes her time to discuss the restoration process, the visual delights of the film and how the production came to be, and points out several little tricks that the makers used to garner some visual effects.

    There is no denying the passion and love that either Scorsese or Schoonmaker have for the film and this, of course, comes over very well. But I would have hoped for more than just a couple of interviews and a gallery, to be honest.

    The Tales of Hoffmann Blu-ray Verdict

    The Tales of Hoffmann The Tales of Hoffmann Blu-ray Verdict
    I will be honest and say, right now, that The Tales of Hoffmann is not one of my favourite films. I adore Powel and Pressburger but I have an unbridled loathing of opera ... and yet ... and yet ... how can you not become utterly entranced and beguiled by a production as inventive, as visually fantastic and as richly composed as this? The performances are electrifying. Robert Helpmann is astonishingly versatile. The artistry is simply ravishing. The power and epic scope of the tales and the passion they evoke can be savoured on a dream-like basis, or allowed to truly infiltrate your soul. The film is a painting come to life.

    It is a clichéd line, I know, but if you have any appreciation for what Cinema can achieve, then you already owe this film a huge debt of gratitude. Without it, some seminal practitioners of the art would never have endeavoured to get behind a camera. Thus, its legacy is peerless even if you don’t, like me, actually have any understanding of, or interest in anything remotely operatic, or even of a merely musical whimsy.

    The film influenced Scorsese, obviously, but also the fantastic minds of Dario Argento, George Romero, Clive Barker, Neil Gaiman, Ridley Scott and Terry Gilliam – and you can clearly see the components, be they visually crafted, or by sheer technical design, complex or cathartic theme, twisted muse or simply cinematic and creative verve that inspired their particular aesthetic fascination. Hell, even the original Star Trek TV show seems culled from the same uniquely gorgeous colour scheme. There are times, when watching this, that I almost expect Kirk and Spock to suddenly appear, phasers drawn, from behind the ornate drapes as though having beamed down to some phantasmogoric world of Machiavellian psychedelia .

    A royally indulgent banquet for the eyes.

    StudioCanal’s UK disc is certainly a revelation with a video transfer that lives up to the hype and presents this classic in all of its sumptuous glory. It is sure to impress its fans, and probably even garner new ones who will find it impossible not to become smitten with such inventive and sensory overload, especially in an age of button-pushing, pixel-powered trickery. I wish there had been more supplements, though. It may be nice to hear from Martin Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker, but their respective pieces, as informative as they are, amount to little more than lavish promo.

    But it is the film and its restoration that are the main ingredients, here. And, man, this is a royally indulgent banquet for the eyes.

    The Tales of Hoffmann comes, unashamedly, highly recommended.

    You can buy The Tales of Hoffmann on Blu-ray here

    Suggested retail price when reviewed: £16.00

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