The Comfort of Strangers [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray B - United Kingdom - British Film Institute
Review written by and copyright: James-Masaki Ryan (23rd September 2018).
The Film

"The Comfort of Strangers" (1990)

Mary (played by Natasha Richardson) and Colin (played by Rupert Everett) are a couple on holiday in Venice trying to reclaim a fire in their relationship. Mary is constantly thinking about her two children in England staying with her mother and Colin is distracted with work. While out looking for a place to eat late at night, they run into Robert (played by Christopher Walken) - a dashing man in a white suit who offers to take them to a bar open at night. While there he introduces himself, talks to them, gives them some fine wine and comfort.

Their night drinking at the bar and with Robert leads to the couple getting lost and eventually sleeping in an alleyway. When Robert finds out about their unfortunate night, he offers them service at his lavish home where he lives with his wife Caroline (played by Helen Mirren). But when the couples entangle, there is something much more sinister lurking towards Mary and Colin...

Based on the 1981 novel by Ian McEwan about a couple on holiday that befriend an unusual couple, "The Comfort of Strangers" was highly praised and put the author's name high on lists of contemporary writers. An adaptation into a film may have seemed unusual move considering much of the book was descriptive and without dialogue interaction, but acclaimed writer Harold Pinter gave it a twist by adding a fair amount of witty and captivating dialogue to the script form. Some dialogue passages were just heresay but gave fullness to the characters, others were deep, disturbing, and bizarre, yet captivating words to add to the mystique. Acclaimed screenwriter and director Paul Schrader was hired to direct the script. In the 1980s Schrader's career was exceptional with acclaimed writing and/or directing films such as "Cat People", "Mishima", "Patty Hearst", "The Last Temptation of Christ", and "The Mosquito Coast", though they were not commercial audience favorites, being mostly catered towards the high brow crowds and arthouse film fans, or ones scattered with controversy limiting audiences.

The novel never named the city the couple was visiting, though it was very much implied with the descriptions of the settings and architecture. There was a possibility of setting the film in Istanbul, but it was ultimately decided on Italy, and with help from producer Angelo Rizzoli Jr., Italy was ultimately chosen. For casting Natasha Richardson who previously worked with Schrader on "Patty Hearst" was cast as Mary and acclaimed actor Rupert Everett was cast as her lover Colin. The pair were well cast with a certain amount of uncomfortable tension between them at the start of the film, as the lovers whose relationship had gone stale in recent times. The two are constantly unsure about a wide range of things. From the possibility of marriage, his thought on her children from a previous marriage, their sexual or lack or sexual relations, and inability to have fun in general. It is only after the two meet the mysterious couple that is Robert and Caroline that their world opens. Mary and Colin literally become sexually inseparable holing themselves up (no pun intended) in their hotel experiencing true passion. What exactly was it about the mysterious other couple that opened up their minds? Robert and Caroline (played by Christopher Walken and Helen Mirren respectively) are not exactly the happiest couple or the ideal couple. They have an oddness about them - like when Caroline said she was watching Mary and Colin as they slept for about thirty minutes, just admiring their bodies, or Robert being unnaturally inviting with his storytelling and charm. His monologue about how he met his wife which culminates for about ten minutes of the film is one of the most fascinating and brilliant monologues in film, which Walken completely owns and done in one session rather than in breaks. While the title may not suggest it, the title could have easily been "The Discomfort of Strangers", but the actors bring the comfort/discomfort level to a strangely equal balance. On one had the audience is perfectly fine with the interactions between the two couples. But there are other times where the audience will want to scream "Get out!"

Somehow the city of Venice seems to be caught in a place of uncomfortable mystery in cinema. From "Don't Look Now", "Death in Venice", to even "007 - Casino Royale", something is lurking between the canals of Venice that remains unexplained. "The Comfort of Strangers" can also be added to that list very easily. The film played at the Locarno Film Festival and Venice Film Festival, but was not immediately recognized. The film received a scattered theatrical release worldwide in late 1990 and throughout 1991 with very little recognition from audiences and critics. Even with marketing as a work by Schrader and Pinter, the film could not cross over into the mainstream and eventually being seen more by cable television or rental audiences. "The Comfort of Strangers" may not be in the upper tier of Schrader's directed works nor is it high on the list of Pinter's adaptations, as it still has its flaws in the narrative with unanswered questions and sometimes confusing intentions and actions of characters, but it is still very well worth seeing for the performances - especially of Walken's and to be disturbed in a very subtle way.

Note this is a region B Blu-ray and region 2 PAL DVD set.

Video

The BFI presents the film in the 1.85:1 aspect ratio, in 1080p in the AVC MPEG-4 codec. The transfer comes from a high definition master from MGM, using a 35mm interpositive. The transfer is fairly good but there are some drawbacks. Firstly, it is framed properly with no issues of telecine wobble, with a consistently stable image. The remastered transfer has been cleaned, but there are some minor specs visible in most occasions. Skins tones are a little on the red side, and scenes using special filters and lighting, particularly green and orange stand out, as does Walken's white suit designed by the film's costume designer Giorgio Armani. Detail is fine, though it does seem a bit on the lacking side on closer glaces.

The film's runtime on the Blu-ray is 104:37 and on the DVD 100:20 accounting for 4% PAL speedup.

Note the screenshots are taken from the standard definition disc



















Audio

English LPCM 2.0 mono
The mono audio track is included. IMDB lists the audio as "stereo" but the print does not have any indication of a stereo soundtrack and "mono" seems to be the correct information. Composer Angelo Badalamenti's score comes in very nicely, well balanced with the dialogue and effects though it should be noted the volume is a little on the quiet side compared to the average release. Dialogue is always clear, and there are no issues with the audio such as dropouts or hiss. Note the DVD copy has the mono audio track in Dolby Digital 2.0.

There are optional English HoH subtitles in a white font for the main feature. The subtitles are a little on the thin side, but are still easy to read and without any errors. Whenever minor Italian is spoken the subtitles actually caption the dialogue in Italian. These sections were not originally subtitled for English audiences.

Extras

This is a dual format release, with the film and extras on the Blu-ray, and the same content repeated on the DVD in standard definition PAL.


DISC ONE (Blu-ray)

Audio commentary by Paul Schrader
Recorded in 2018 nearly 30 years after the shoot, Schrader gives a solo commentary on the production. Topics include the casting choices, working with Pinter, helping Walken create his character, issues with shooting in Venice including exteriors, the use of colors, a deleted scene which doesn't appear on the disc, and much more. The commentary is for some reason out of sync for a few seconds with the film.
in English LPCM 2.0 with no subtitles

"Prospectus for a Course Not Given: The Paul Schrader Film Masterclass" 1982 (100:00)
In 1982 at the National Film Theatre, Schrader gave an on stage presentation of a film course he had recently given in the United States on screenwriting. In addition he takes some questions from the audience. This is an audio only extra which plays as an alternate audio track to the film. There are some microphone issues as he sometimes doesn't speak directly into it, although during the Q&A portions it sounds better.
in English LPCM 1.0 with no subtitles

"Paul Schrader Guardian Interview" 1993(84:44)
Schrader was interviewed on stage by Derek Malcolm in 1993 and this audio recording plays alongside the first 85 minutes of the film as an alternate audio track. Subjects discussed are Schrader’s personal background, difficulties with financing, discussions on scripts he’d written and directed versus scripts done for hire, the troubles had with his film "Mishima, and much more. "The Comfort of Strangers" is barely discussed in this interview. Also note that this interview was also included on the Powerhouse/Indicator Blu-ray of "Hardcore".
in English LPCM 1.0 with no subtitles

"Images of Venice in Archive Film" shorts films (with Play All) (7:50)
Three documentary short films from the BFI national archives featuring Venice is presented here:

- "Venice in War Time" (1918) (1:06)
In this Topical Budget short newsreel, WWI troops can be seen riding gondolas in Venice.
in 1080p AVC MPEG-4, in 1.33:1, Music LPCM 2.0 with English intertitles

- "The Glass Makers of Murano, Venice" (1928) (3:35)
This Pathe! short has scenes of glass making in Venice, as featured in "The Comfort of Strangers". The short has some heavy damage at the start and the entire left side for the remainder of the film.
in 1080p AVC MPEG-4, in 1.33:1, Music LPCM 2.0 with English intertitles

- "City Lights" (1964) (3:08)
This color short made by the National Coal Board talks about coal and its importance in British and Italian relations.
in 1080p AVC MPEG-4, in 1.33:1, English LPCM 1.0 with no subtitles

Theatrical Trailer (1:30)
The original US trailer is presented, though interestingly in the European widescreen ratio rather.
in 1080p AVC MPEG-4, in 1.66:1, in English LPCM 1.0 with no subtitles


DISC TWO (DVD)

Audio commentary by Paul Schrader
"Prospectus for a Course Not Given: The Paul Schrader Film Masterclass" 1982, audio only, plays over the film (100:00)
"Paul Schrader Guardian Interview" 1993, audio only, plays over the film (84:44)
"Images of Venice in Archive Film" shorts films (with Play All)
- "Venice in War Time" (1918) (1:04)
- "The Glass Makers of Murano, Venice" (1928) (3:27)
- "City Lights" (1964) (3:02)
Theatrical Trailer (1:36)

The same extras are presented in standard definition PAL on the DVD. The audio interviews are NOT sped up for PAL and are presented in their original speed alongside the film.


Booklet
A 32 page booklet is included, with essays, biographies, cast and crew listings, special features information, and acknoledgements . The first essay is "On the Other Side of the Mirror" by Dr. Deborah Allison, who compares the book to the film, Pinter's input, Schrader's direction and an analysis of the film. Next is "The Adaptable Ian McEwan" by Paul Fairclough, which is a short biography and bibliography of McEwan's works. There are also biographies of Harold Pinter written by Michael Billington and one of Paul Schrader written by Dr. Deborah Allison.


This marks the UK Blu-ray debut following a German release from Koch Media, and considering the previous Blu-ray and DVD editions worldwide had minimal or no extras, this BFI release outdoes them all. Schrader does mention in the commentary he wishes that he had done the commentary much earlier so he could have heard the thoughts of Richardson and Pinter in retrospect. Richardson died from a skiing accident in 2009 at the age of 45 and Pinter from cancer in 2008 at the age of 78. Interviews with Walken or Everett would have also been interesting to hear, but they are nowhere to be found on this disc.

Overall

"The Comfort of Strangers" is goes from rekindled romance to a discomforting darkness very subtly with the great performances by the lead actors. There are some flaws that the production cannot escape from, but is still a worthy disturbing piece of writing and filmmaking. The BFI's dual format release gives the film a good transfer with video and audio and some great extras to go along with it. Very recommended.

The Film: B Video: B Audio: B+ Extras: B+ Overall: B

 


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