Hemingway & Gellhorn (US - BD RA)
Jonathan takes a look at the Blu-ray release of the recent HBO film...
Hemingway & Gellhorn recounts one of the great romances of the last century - the passionate love affair and tumultuous marriage of literary master Ernest Hemingway (Owen) and the beautiful, trailblazing war correspondent Martha Gellhorn (Kidman) - as it follows the adventurous writers through the Spanish Civil War and beyond. As witnesses to history, they covered all the great conflicts of their time, but the war they couldn't survive was the war between themselves. (From the HBO synopsis)
It isn't all that often that we get a new film from Philip Kaufman, who is known for his part in writing the Indiana Jones series and also directed classics like 1983's Best Picture winner The Right Stuff. We can just ignore that Twisted movie. In 1988 he directed The Unbearable Lightness of Being, a movie that explored human relationships against the war-torn backdrop of Czechoslovakia during the Soviet Union invasion of 1968. It's considered a classic by many, and Hemingway and Gellhorn finds him once again in that familiar territory. This time he is taking on the famous romance between literary titans, their experiences during the Spanish Civil War, and their troubled marriage. The story is narrated by an older Gellhorn (played by Kidman in makeup), who drops in with some occasional insights but really gives no thrust to the narrative and its 155 minute runtime. The opening 40 minutes can be a crawl, with lots of time dedicated to showy supporting performances like David Strathairn as John Dos Passos, Tony Shalhoub as Mikhail Koltsov, and Robert Duvall as a Russian General. These performances are enjoyable if you're a fan of the actors, but they don't end up contributing much to the examination of Hemingway and Gellhorn's relationship.
Clive Owen and Nicole Kidman are the highlights of the film. They're clearly having a good time inhabiting these towering personalities. Our first glimpse of Hemingway shows him smoking a cigar and catching a giant marlin, which he then hurls on deck and slams his fist into. It's almost like something out of Sin City with stylized colors and all. There are a few scenes in the movie like this, and these outrageous interpretations are kind of fun to watch and are representative of the larger than life characters. At the same time, the exaggerated qualities of their characters makes them extremely difficult to connect with, sometimes turning their complex personalities into borderline caricatures. This depiction also lends itself into melodrama on a regular basis, complete with scenery chewing. It all works against the film and keeps the characters at arms length, which is not an effective tactic when the narrative is dedicated to exploring a relationship.
On top of this, the film is loaded with tawdry effects that further remove the viewer from the characters, and often induce tedium instead of wonderment. For example, during their adventures out in the field, the movie frequently shifts styles from a purely digital look to an intentionally old fashioned filmic style, sometimes mixing with actual archival footage. It's all CGI effects, and the scratches and grain sit awkwardly over the image as the content of the film moves into cartoonish territory. The only reason I can think of them doing this (other than "it looks cool") was to show how Hemingway and Gellhorn romanticized their field work during the Spanish Civil War. But whose head are we inhabiting? And it comes across as silly more often than not. The artificial effect is used often enough to veer into obnoxiousness. Its one of the few movies in recent memory where a haphazard style really took me out of the film. Kaufman has used archival footage effectively in the past, but here it feels more like the focus of the movie than exploring the characters, and that's a problem. The effect is used again in different context to make it look like Clive Owen and Nicole Kidman are talking to the Roosevelts, not unlike Zemeckis's tricks in Forrest Gump. Again it is used while Gellhorn explores the devastation of the Dachau concentration camp. It becomes quickly apparent that there is real no symbolism behind the visual trickery. It is just an effect someone thought would look neat.
A slightly more interesting but equally alienating example of the films stylistic touches is a passionate sexual encounter between Hemingway and Gellhorn where they make love as explosions literally come crashing through the windows, bringing pieces of the building down and covering them in debris. It advances the idea of the couple romanticizing the backdrop of war, but in execution it just comes across as awfully silly. Still, it is much more daring than the cheap visual tricks, and it feels much more like something I'd expect from a Philip Kaufman film. If all of these stylish touches had found a way to bring me closer to understanding the characters, the gimmickry would not feel so blatant. But all we really get is tricks mixed with melodrama, and no sight of meaning. Not satisfied with finishing the film where their romance ended, the drama stumbles to the end of Hemingway's life and Gellhorn's late career, scrambling for some emotional resolution but feeling ultimately unnecessary.
HBO has done a fine job with this 1080p transfer. The film was shot on the Arri Alexa digital camera, and the scenes that aren't intentionally made to look like archival footage have a very clean and sharp appearance. Some digital noise is present but there is no sight of compression artefacts. The visuals change color palettes on a regular basis throughout the runtime to match the feel of the various settings, and there's also a ton of archival footage. As a result, skin tones, clarity, and even black levels vary on a pretty regular basis. The image quality never looks bad though, aside from the intentionally scratchy/grainy footage. When there are no filters or CGI tricks at play, the Arri Alexa image looks very nice. Reds and blues pop and you can make out all the finest textures of the old outfits and set design. It's a perfectly fine Blu-ray encode, but the shifting styles keep it from consistently reaching reference level material.
For what sometimes feels like a small movie, Hemingway & Gellhorn boasts a busy DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track. The front of the mix is wide open with almost constant audio in the stereo speakers. It was a nice change of pace from dramas where nearly all sound gets funnelled into the center channel. Dialogue stays appropriately centered and is perfectly easy to make out, even in the ruckus of war scenes. I tip my hat to the sound design team for being able to make a surround mix that marries the archival war footage nicely, creating a real sense of place even when the visual gimmickry didn't sell me. Bar occupants and the busy shuffle of the dance floor give the rear channels some liveliness, ensuring they aren't just reserved for the war scenes. The score from Javier Navarrete (one of Guillermo Del Toro's frequent collaborators) is one of the highlights of the film, and it gorgeously populates the front channels.
First off is an Audio Commentary with Director Philip Kaufman and Editor Walter Murch. This is not the most active and interesting commentary track. There is a lot of down time for a two person track, but there is also some interesting trivia from Kaufman about the real Hemingway and Gellhorn. Both sometimes have a tendency to explain what is happening in the scene or point out things that are clearly in view. It's not as blatant and ridiculous as say, Arnold on the Total Recall commentary track, but being walked through a scene doesn't make for the most fascinating listen. There is a lot of time spent discussing the visual choices in the movie. Kaufman says using the archival footage was the best way to create a movie of this scale without a lot of expensive re-staging. I can't say the execution was ultimately a success, as the movie never felt massive in scope to me, but I respect the idea.
Behind the Visual Effects (HD, 05:29) is a short look at the special effects used in the movie, focusing mostly on the process of inserting Clive Owen and Nicole Kidman into archival footage. While it definitely wasn't an aspect of the movie I liked, this featurette did help me to appreciate some of the more subtle effects. There is interview footage with Visual Effects Supervisor Chris Morley and Director Philip Kaufman. Next up is Making Hemingway & Gellhorn (HD, 06:27), a quick behind the scenes segment. There is interview footage from the cast and filmmakers. They talk about how everyone got involved in the project. There is more talk of the visual effects in the film. Editor Walter Murch chimes in about the use of archival footage and different color schemes/aesthetics for different locations in the world. Kaufman and Murch praise the original score from Javier Navarrete.
Hemingway & Gellhorn has fun performances from its two leads, but the filmmakers lean too heavily on stylistic choices that feel artificial and contribute very little to the narrative. With fewer green screen shenanigans, less overblown melodrama, and a more focused look at what makes these characters tick, this could've been something great. HBO's high standards remain intact on the AV front with a solid transfer and a strong, surprisingly busy audio track. Extras are weak, but offer some neat insight into the making of the picture.
* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.
Review by Jonathan Hogberg
Release Date: 2nd April 2013
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 English, DTS French 5.1, DTS Spanish 2.0
Subtitles: English SDH, French, Spanish
Extras: Audio Commentary with Philip Kaufman and Walter Murch, Behind the Visual Effects, Making Hemingway & Gellhorn, DVD Copy
Easter Egg: No
Director: Philip Kaufman
Cast: Nicole Kidman, Clive Owen, David Strathairn
Genre: Drama and Romance
Length: 155 minutes
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