BBC Video // 2011 // 344 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // September 27th, 2011
"A riveting thriller set in a decade on the threshold of change."
It's almost a cliché that every history is really a history of the present. It's not that we don't have access to the past, but we read it through our own experiences and prejudices. Only time will tell what it means, but it seems significant that The Hour, a British drama about a 1950s newsroom, crossed the pond to BBC America a scant week after a series of riots/protests shook the streets of London. Though it was written (and premiered in Britain) long before the events in London, the fact that a show of this level of budget and prestige would look back to a time of Cold War paranoia and a certain amount of national post-WII pride probably tells us a lot about the state of British society. However, whether you want to enjoy it as a telling example of 21st century British culture or as another pretty costume drama filled with sex appeal and international intrigue, The Hour provides six hours of fine television.
It's the mid-1950s and, while America is sleeping through a decade of "I Like Ike," Britain is struggling with its status as an ex-empire. The royals are not nearly as interesting in this climate as the maneuverings of various politicians, but you wouldn't know it from watching the nightly news. There, all the British public sees are stories about cricket and the impending marriages of various high society lads and lasses. Freddie Lyon (Ben Whishaw, The Tempest) wants to change all that. He envisions an hourly news program that tells the British audience what's going on in the world and how it affects them at home. He's aided in this quest by his best friend (and secret crush), Bel (Romola Garai, Atonement), who becomes the producer of their idealistic show, dubbed The Hour. Though Freddy is initially turned off when bypassed for the role of anchor in favor of the sauve Hector (Dominic West, The Wire), he reluctantly joins the show to investigate the mysterious death of a professor. All six one hour episodes are spread across two discs.
The easy comparison to ease viewers into The Hour is that other noted backward-glancing show Mad Men. Don't be fooled. Initially, the similarities seem obvious: both are shows that try to sex-up an era most viewers can't remember, both take on the media, and both are interested in examining the role of gender in the masculine world they portray. Aside from sharing high-caliber acting and production values, the similarities end there. From its opening moments, Mad Men is a kind of allegory, a heightened dream-like version of what we imagine the '60s to have been, stylized to an excessive degree. In addition to its compelling character, Mad Men seems to fetishize the period details like clothes and hair.
In contrast, The Hour plays much more like a typical period piece. The setting is significant -- it's a historical show after all -- but not played up nearly as much as Mad Men. I make this comparison (despite it being common to most reviews of the show) to point out that very few shows can withstand being compared to Mad Men. And, more importantly, The Hour has different ambitions. Even if it's far from perfect, it deserves to be judged on those ambitions alone.
The most obvious strength of The Hour is its troupe of actors. Ben Whishaw has a frazzled, passionate air about him; he's the kind of guy who inspires the gents with his rhetoric, while all the ladies want to take him home to give his gaunt frame a sandwich. Ben is opposed to the overly-smooth Dominic West, and it's no surprise a producer would choose West's Hector over Whishaw's Freddie. Here Dominic gets to play a true Brit for once -- a novelty for American audiences used to his turn as McNulty on The Wire -- and he's wonderful. By turns charming and uptight, Hector is a guy who's easy to love or hate (depending on what side of the charm you're on). Romola Garai is caught in the middle, and her turn as the empowered new producer of The Hour is impeccable. She's obviously an attractive woman; at turns seductive and demure as the role demands. And though this trio lead the cast, the rest of the ensemble fit the mold well.
Though The Hour does not set out to bring a resurgence in '50s fashion, the period setting is impeccable from a dramatic point of view. I can't tell whether everything is factually accurate, but the costumes, props, and sets give the show a very stylish (if not stylized) feel. There are lots of well-cut suits, pretty dresses, and plenty of cigarette smoke to add an air of mystery.
The Hour comes to Blu-ray a little over a month after it premiered on BBC America, which is a blessing. These six one-hour episodes fit comfortably on two discs, presented in their original 1.78:1 aspect ratio in a 1080i/AVC-encode. Often the 1080i designation is a bad thing, as artifacts will crop up, but The Hour is surprisingly free of flaws. The show's exquisite sets are rendered with crisp detail, and the show's reduced color scheme is perfectly saturated. Dark scenes have impressive black levels, and noise isn't a significant problem. The audio option is a LPCM 2.0 stereo affair that keeps dialogue clearly audible and well balanced with the show's use of vintage tunes. Bonus features include two featurettes that take a look at the set design and a more general behind-the-scenes goings on.
The Hour is far from perfect. It's definitely a bit slow to get started -- many critics have rightly made the joke that the show would be better if it were, in fact, an hour long -- and the story doesn't live up to the tremendous investment made by cast and crew in performance and period details. There's potential here for a rock-solid show, but these six episodes feel a little underdone. Still watchable, but not the total home run that Anglophile American viewers can lord over their HBO-watching friends.
The Hour is a decent way to burn six hours. It's not the greatest thing the BBC has unleashed in the last few years, but it's a solid period piece that rewards attention with fine performances and a wonderful setting. This Blu-ray set does a good job preserving the show and is easy to recommend for a rental to fans of British television dramas.
Despite its sometimes slow pace, The Hour is not guilty.
Review content copyright © 2011 Gordon Sullivan; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: BBC Video
* 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080i)
* PCM 2.0 Stereo (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 344 Minutes
Release Year: 2011
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Official Site