Our Mutual Friend (1998)

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Released 5-Oct-2006

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Details At A Glance

General Extras
Category Drama Main Menu Audio
Featurette-Dickens: The Final Chapter
Trailer-Pride & Prejudice
Rating Rated M
Year Of Production 1998
Running Time 351:43 (Case: 350)
RSDL / Flipper Dual Layered
Dual Disc Set
Cast & Crew
Start Up Menu
Region Coding 2,4 Directed By Julian Farino
Studio
Distributor

Roadshow Home Entertainment
Starring Paul McGann
Keeley Hawes
Anna Friel
Steven Mackintosh
Peter Vaughan
Pam Ferris
David Morrissey
Timothy Spall
Kenneth Cranham
Case Amaray-Transparent-Secure Clip
RPI Box Music None Given


Video Audio
Pan & Scan/Full Frame Full Frame English Dolby Digital 2.0 (192Kb/s)
Widescreen Aspect Ratio None
16x9 Enhancement No
Video Format 576i (PAL)
Original Aspect Ratio Unknown Miscellaneous
Jacket Pictures No
Subtitles English Audio Commentary Smoking No
Annoying Product Placement No
Action In or After Credits No

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Plot Synopsis

    Our Mutual Friend has the distinction of being the last complete work by Charles Dickens. Halfway during the writing of The Mystery of Edwin Drood , Dickens passed away leaving the mystery unsolved (although he promised Queen Victoria at one time that he would reveal the end to her if Her Majesty so chose).

    It also has the distinction of being one of Dickens' least loved works. It has never been filmed for cinema during the sound era and the BBC has only filmed it three times, 1958, 1976 and this version in 1998. Although modern critics consider the book to be one of his best works, it was unpopular at the time of release and is little read today. The great novelist John Irving keeps a copy of the book near his bedside to be read as his final act before dying!

    There are probably a number of reasons why the book does not share the love of most Dickens fans. One reason has to do with the subject matter and tone of the piece. It is a fairly sombre and dark work with the themes of violent obsession and drowning as its central ideas.

    Another reason perhaps has something to do with the plotting and story development. During the writing of the work Dickens was involved in a serious rail accident which resulted in multiple deaths. Although uninjured, many commentators feel that the experience scarred him and affected the quality of his writing.

    Whatever the reason it is clear to even the most casual Dickens reader that the book is different in its feel than the previous two works, A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations. In many ways the book seems to anticipate the writings of American author Henry James. Like James' most famous works such as Washington Square and The Portrait of A Lady, polite society in Our Mutual Friend seems more savage than the jungle! The Thames River is a character in itself in the novel and it seems almost inevitable that some will float on it and others will be pulled into its murky depths.

    The plot of Our Mutual Friend is fairly complex and at times the motivation of the characters are difficult to follow. Unusually for Dickens there is no real protagonist but rather a series of sometimes connected stories.

    It is a dark night on the Thames. Gaffer Hexham and his daughter Lizzie are plying a grim trade. Gaffer collects from the river the bodies of the murdered, the accidentally drowned and the suicides. After taking what he can from the bodies, he hands them over to the police.

    On this night he finds the body of John Harmon, the beneficiary of the Harmon fortune. Harmon made his money from collecting huge dust mounds and extracting valuable items from the mounds. The terms of his father's will state that in order to claim his fortune he was to marry a woman he had never met, one Bella Wilfer.

    At the mortuary the father's solicitors and his colleague, Eugene Wrayburn, identify the body. The mysterious John Rokesmith, a lodger at the Wilfer household, also sees the body.

    Early in the second episode it is revealed, (if you hadn't guessed already!) that Rokesmith and Harmon are one in the same. He switched identities with a look-a-like in a scheme that went horribly wrong. The plan was for him to test his intended bride to see whether she is a good and true woman. She is not! Bella is a young woman who despises her modest means and is determined to have wealth.

    The default clause in the Harmon Will passed the estate to his faithful servant Boffin and his wife who are more at home watching over the dust mounds than taking part in society. Nevertheless Boffin dedicates himself to becoming knowledgeable (perhaps the origin of the phrase "Boffin") by engaging a one-legged street vendor as his educator. The vendor, Silas Wegg, senses that his fortunes are about to change and he visits Mr Venus, an articulator of bones, who possesses his missing leg. (According to the extra feature on this DVD, in Victorian times the only way to obtain bones for skeletons was to buy them from hospitals.) Whilst picking around in the dust mounds one day, Wegg finds an alternate will and determines to make the best of his situation through a little extortion.

    Meanwhile, Lizzie Hexham gathers enough money to send her young brother to be educated. When her father dies she too leaves the waterside lifestyle and lives in the centre of the city with an odd woman, Jenny Wren, who stitches clothing for dolls.

    These desperate stories come together in interesting ways. Eugene Wrayburn falls immediately for Lizzie Hexham. However, she also attracts the attention of her brother's school master, the obsessive and violent Mr Headstone. She disappears leaving both men to chase her. John Rokesmith offers his services as a secretary to the newly rich Boffins but is humiliated and sacked when he admits his feelings for Bella, only to have her reject him and Boffin now apparently affected by his wealth and position in the world, becoming enraged that a new secretary could suppose to fall in love with a woman of future fortune. For the childless Boffins have dedicated themselves to passing on their wealth to Bella.

    The drama of the work is in discovering who will find their way to the bottom of the river and who will rise above it. The plot shifts are quite marked and the ending seems both rushed and protracted given the delicate pacing of the series to that point. However, this is a criticism that was consistently thrown at the novel and not simply a fault of this production.

    From a viewers perspective there are some very satisfying scenes in the film. Although love is seemingly at the core of the story, it is clear that love as an obsession is Dickens' interest. With the exception of the eternally good Lizzie Hexham, the other characters are all very self-possessed and continually place their own desires over the good of the object of their obsession.

    The production is finely acted, featuring a cast of experienced British actors. Blink-or- you- will- miss- him Dr Who Paul McGann plays Eugene Wrayburn and Tipping the Velvet star Keeley Hawes is Lizzie Hexham. Steven Mackintosh is the cool and collected John Rokesmith, whilst Anna Friel from Goal! and Timeline plays Bella Wilfer.

    There are nice performances from Katy Murphy as Jenny Wren and David Morrissey makes the best he can of the tortured Bradley Headstone. As the comical but occasionally dangerous Wegg and Venus, experienced actors Kenneth Cranham and Timothy Spall (Wormtail from Harry Potter) put in excellent performances, not only illuminating the text but making you feel that these actors lived in Victorian times.

    There is an enormous cast of characters but special mention must be made of the great David Bradley as Rogue Riderhood, another man carrying out the dark business of retrieving bodies in the Thames! Viewers will recognise him as Argus Filtch from the Harry Potter films but he also has given a great performance as the nemesis of David Morrissey in the TV series Blackpool. Here Bradley imparts a chilling singularity of purpose to his character who subtly guides Headstone towards tragic action.

    Whilst Our Mutual Friend will never be as popular as other Dickens works this is nevertheless an enjoyable tale and a well directed and acted production. It is a worthy edition to the Dickens Collection.

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Transfer Quality

Video

    Our Mutual Friend comes to DVD in a 1.33:1 transfer.

    This is somewhat of a surprise as the program was telecast on the BBC in 1998 and I was expecting to have the benefit of a wide screen transfer. In fact, both Great Expectations and David Copperfield which were both broadcast in 1999, come with a wide screen presentation. The Region 1 version of this DVD is described as having a 1.78:1 transfer however details about the original aspect ratio are sketchy at best so it is difficult to tell whether this simply represents the last of the standard TV ratio mini-series.

    Irrespective of the original aspect ratio, it is unfortunately the case that this is not a particularly good looking series. Whilst some of the transfers on the earlier discs in Dickens Collection were excusable due to their early production date, it seems to me that this ought to look much better.

    There is a variability in the clarity of some scenes and a persistent grainy look, particularly in some of the night scenes. Given that this is a very dark production it means that there are considerable moments when the image could have been much better. It is unfortunate that there is a variability of quality in the show which then draws more attention to the average scenes.

    It is also surprising that there are the occasional artefacts and markings on the print, suggesting that despite it being fairly recent, the source print has picked up more damage than some of the older shows in the series. It does not detract from the overall production but it it nevertheless a disappointment.

    There are English subtitles for the Hearing Impaired which are clear and easy to read. Audio sync is not a problem.

Video Ratings Summary
Sharpness
Shadow Detail
Colour
Grain/Pixelization
Film-To-Video Artefacts
Film Artefacts
Overall

Audio

    Our Mutual Friend comes to DVD with an English Dolby Digital 2.0 (192 KB/s) soundtrack, which is adequate for the film.

    The dialogue is perfectly clear and easy to understand notwithstanding that the story stresses the differences between the rich and the poor, with the poor tending to have heavy accents. Such is the quality of actors on board, however, that they are never incomprehensible.

    The music deserves a special mention. Composer Adrian Johnston has created a memorable main theme which sums up the darkness of the piece as well as the turbulence of the emotions on show. It suits the murkiness of the Thames River.

Audio Ratings Summary
Dialogue
Audio Sync
Clicks/Pops/Dropouts
Surround Channel Use
Subwoofer
Overall

Extras

    There are only two DVDs in the Dickens Collection which contain genuine extras. Our Mutual Friend contains two.

Featurette

    Dickens The Final Chapter which is an examination of Our Mutual Friend placing it in the context of Dickens life and London of the time. It is approximately 30 minutes long and uses a blend of scholars as well as actors from the film to explain the context of their characters. It is pointed out that Dickens himself had a tough and sometimes sad childhood and further that his frame of mind at the time of writing the book, facing illness and advancing years, was such that it leaked into the tone of the work creating its darkness.

    It was interesting to see some contemporary sketches of the Thames and the dust mounds of the time. Both were recreated far away from London. This is a worthy additional feature for this DVD.

Trailer

    This is a series of trailers of other BBC period pieces.

    It is possible to access the original music score composed and digitally edited in 5.1 surround. No images attach to this score. It does sound fuller and even more poignant in surround sound. This feature is useful for listening to when reading the paper or perhaps even reading your way through the novel.

R4 vs R1

NOTE: To view non-R4 releases, your equipment needs to be multi-zone compatible and usually also NTSC compatible.

    As said, the Region 1 DVD of Our Mutual Friend is said to be in wide-screen although I could find no reviews of the product to support this comment. It is difficult to recommend that version unseen so unless you are inordinately attached to the program, it is more economical to buy it as part of the Region 4 Dickens Collection.

Summary

    Our Mutual Friend is a well acted and directed account of the Dickens novel and has all the virtues of the novel as well as the flaws.

    The transfer is slightly disappointing given that the series is fairly recent however the problems are not enough to be off-putting.

    The special features are interesting and a nice addition to the mini-series.

Ratings (out of 5)

Video
Audio
Extras
Plot
Overall

© Trevor Darge (read my bio)
Wednesday, December 06, 2006
Review Equipment
DVDOnkyo DV-SP300, using Component output
DisplayNEC PlasmaSync 42" MP4 1024 x 768. This display device has not been calibrated. This display device is 16x9 capable.
Audio DecoderBuilt in to amplifier/receiver.
AmplificationOnkyo TX-SR600 with DD-EX and DTS-ES
SpeakersJBL Simply Cinema SCS178 5.1

Other Reviews NONE
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Widescreen - REPLY POSTED
Widescreen in original R2 release -