The American Society of Cinematographers

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Return to Table of Contents May 2006 Return to Table of Contents
M I3
The Propositon
DVD Playback
Midnight Cowboy
Ryans Daughter
Unbearable Light...
ASC Close-Up
Ryans Daughter (1970)
Special Edition
2.35:1 (16x9 Enhanced)
Dolby Digital 5.1
Warner Home Video, $26.95



Ryan’s Daughter should have been the culmination of director David Lean’s career. It reunited him with two of his Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago collaborators, cinematographer Freddie Young, BSC and screenwriter Robert Bolt, and its story of a doomed romance set against the backdrop of the Irish Revolution featured all of Lean’s obsessions: adulterous passions, political turmoil, and military procedure. Yet Ryan’s Daughter fared poorly with critics and audiences, and Lean was so unsettled by the reaction that it took him more than a decade to return to work.

In Kevin Brownlow’s indispensable biography of Lean, the director and his collaborators blame the general climate of the film industry at the time for the movie’s poor reception; studios were losing money and cutting corners, and Lean’s extravagance looked indulgent and old-fashioned. But it’s hard to argue with critic Pauline Kael’s assertion that the picture lacks emotional energy. The movie is impeccably art-directed and photographed, qualities that stand out in Warner’s stunning new DVD, but the acting is wooden and the pacing sluggish — the love interest (played by Christopher Jones) doesn’t even enter the story until an hour into the film.

Young’s Academy Award-winning work on Ryan’s Daughter is so impressive it often compensates for the picture’s weaknesses. An example is the scene depicting the ill-fated lovers’ first kiss. There is virtually no narrative justification for the moment — the two characters have just met and exhibit little chemistry — but the scene works thanks to its lighting and composition, which isolate the lovers from the outside world. Throughout the film, cramped interiors are atmospherically lit in ways that emphasize the emotionally constricted state of the characters, particularly when contrasted with the film’s lush exteriors. The latter images are as beautiful as anything Young and Lean ever created, but their decision to focus on muddy reality for much of the picture is an interesting refutation of the romanticism that characterized Dr. Zhivago.

Although Lean initially intended to tell an intimate story in Ryan’s Daughter, it is on the level of visual spectacle that the film ultimately triumphs. Young shot the picture in Super Panavision 70 (a format Mikael Salomon, ASC revived decades later for another Irish epic, Far and Away), and the larger negative allows for imagery that is breathtaking in its clarity and depth.

Warner’s new DVD is not only a vast improvement over the previous laserdisc transfer, but also one of the best-looking DVD transfers of the year so far. Every nuance of Young’s lighting is presented with astonishing detail and vibrant color, and the sound mix is dense and vivid.

The DVD includes an audio commentary that runs the length of the 206-minute film and features 13 contributors, including film critic Richard Schickel, director John Boorman, Lean biographer Stephen Silverman and more than a half-dozen cast and crew members. Despite the numerous commentators, the track is well organized, and the film’s length allows for all of the speakers to make their points without seeming rushed.

The commentators are also interviewed in the hour-long documentary “The Making of Ryan’s Daughter,” which chronicles the film’s creation and reception. Unfortunately, nearly all of the present-day interviews in the documentary repeat material from the commentary track. However, the featurette also includes archival interviews with Lean, Young and other principal collaborators. More extensive archival interviews, including a hilarious bit with a surly Robert Mitchum, are on view in “We’re the Last of the Traveling Circuses,” an informative vintage documentary. A second documentary from the time of the film’s release, “Ryan’s Daughter: A Story of Love,” is standard promotional fare. Two theatrical trailers round out the supplements.


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