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Case Number 18760

Buy Wartime Britain at Amazon

Wartime Britain

The Heat Of The Day
1989 // 106 Minutes // Not Rated
Island At War
2004 // 398 Minutes // Not Rated
Housewife, 49
2006 // 93 Minutes // Not Rated
Released by Acorn Media
Reviewed by Judge Christopher Kulik (Retired) // April 21st, 2010

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All Rise...

The nation of Great Britain has declared war on Judge Christopher Kulik.

The Charge

Three British dramas set during World War II.

Opening Statement

I'm not sure what compelled Acorn Media to throw together three previously released DVDs into one box set, though decreasing warehouse stock is surely a clue. However, if you didn't buy these DVDs before, this box set is adequately priced, providing three TV films with varying degrees of quality.

Facts of the Case

The Heat Of The Day (1989): Based on Elizabeth Bowen's classic novel of espionage, following widow Stella (Patricia Hodge, Rumpole Of The Bailey) as she comes to grips with her husband's passing and her only son inheriting much of his estate. Soon after the funeral, Stella is approached by a mysterious stranger named Harrison (Michael Gambon, The Book Of Eli) who claims he has information implicating her lover Robert (Michael York, Austin Powers In Goldmember) of selling secrets to the Germans. Who can she trust?

Island At War (2004): Six-part miniseries detailing the July 1940 invasion of the defenseless Channel islands by the Nazis, who would hold the residents hostage for almost five years. We follow three families as they deal with the German authorities, including the numerous restrictions and Jew-hunting. Other plot threads include a blossoming romance between a young British woman and a disillusioned Nazi lawyer; two spies attempting to get information to feed back to London; and the mother of one of the spies befriending the Nazi Commandant in charge.

Housewife, 49 (2006): Based on the true story of Nella Last, a Lancashire housewife who refuses to believe the threat of bombing by German planes. Fearing she may be suffering a nervous breakdown, she scribbles all her concerns and feelings of those around her (particularly her feeble husband and enlisted son) into a diary. Eventually, she becomes a war volunteer giving her a sense of purpose and meaning for the first time in her life. Last would later submit her diary to the Mass Observation project, its goal to collect first-person narratives before the Nazi invasion.

The Evidence

Of all three films, Housewife, 49 is arguably the best of the lot. Directed with class by Gavin Millar (Dreamchild) and anchored by a sterling performance from the beloved Victoria Wood (who also penned the script, based on Last's actual diaries), the film is absorbing from beginning to end. Not only an excellent look at a country preparing for impending attack, it's also a powerful character study; Last is a woman who cannot fathom the emotional calamity erupting around her, terrified of her only son dying on the battlefield, driving her to insanity. Her domineering husband only adds fuel to the fire, but her diary and volunteer work manage to keep her sane. This is about one woman's liberation during genuinely grim times, and it's beautifully executed.

Acorn gives Housewife, 49 a fine treatment on DVD. The widescreen print is free of debris and dirt, with nice colors and solid black levels. Granted, the film doesn't have the visual oomph of a theatrical production, but it more than holds its own. The stereo track is clean and echo-free, with proper attention given to both the music and dialogue. Extras are a cut above most Acorn releases, with some historical background on the Mass Observation Project and a text interview from Wood. As with all three films in this set, cast filmographies are also provided.

The oldest film in the set is The Heat Of The Day, a lavishly produced thriller that isn't quite as satisfying as one would hope. I read the novel while in college and remember being taken away by Bowen's prose, yet the story never really gripped me. I had the same issue with the adaptation by the late Harold Pinter, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2005. He's reasonably faithful to Bowen to be sure, but the slow pacing and languid dialogue works against Day's favor.

The film is still watchable thanks to superb performances by Hodge and Gambon, whose scenes together are intense and unsettling. The always-handsome York is merely ok; virtually absent until past the half-way mark, he doesn't project the charm the role requires, yet still holds his own with the other actors. Juicy supporting roles are given to Oscar-winner Dame Peggy Ashcroft (A Passage To India) and nominee Imelda Staunton (Vera Drake). Their turns alone are welcome and inviting but, considering the source and the screenwriter, The Heat Of The Day should have been much better.

Considering Day is over 20 years old now, the full frame image looks far from pristine. Grain is abundant in each and every shot, and colors are horribly muted. Things aren't much better on the audio side, with a flat mono track and SDH subtitles. The thin extras include a Pinter biography and the aforementioned cast filmographies. This is the easily the weakest of all three in terms of tech specs and extras; utterly routine when it comes to Acorn.

This leaves Island At War, easily the most disappointing of the Wartime Britain set. The relationship between the Nazis and the Islanders is fascinating subject matter, especially since many of the Germans aren't depicted as prejudiced monsters but as real human beings. The primary problem is the uneven and unmemorable characterizations; not only are the introductions awkward, but nobody is really fleshed out. I don't blame the actors, who are all certainly capable and professional; too many of them get sidelined and forgotten as the sluggish narrative takes its sweet time to unfold.

There are other debits as well. Lacking a proper rhythm, the miniseries fails as drama because of the severe lack of conflict and credibility. I'm not saying it has to be as straightforward as Judith Krantz novel, but we must invest some interest into the characters and the situations they find themselves in. Many of the scenes simply ring false, despite its valiant efforts to be historically accurate. The only relationship which generates any interest is between the Jewish girl and the Nazi officer who fancies her. Unfortunately, even this subplot isn't given proper closure.

To add insult to injury, Island At War feels incomplete even with a running time of 6½ hours. The continuity, especially, is all over the place; it's almost as if writer Stephen Mallatratt composed each of the individual stories and threw them together sans proper structure. A second batch of episodes has been rumored for years, but most likely will not happen due to Mallatratt's passing several years ago. Maybe it's just as well.

Aside from the lovely cinematography—with the Isle of Man standing in for the Channel Islands—and strong production values, Island Of War is largely a waste of time. Hopefully the history of this incident will inspire a better film in the future.

Surprisingly enough, Island Of War is the best on the set when it comes to the A/V details and bonus features. The 1.78:1 anamorphic image is clean, free of grain and scratches. The location shooting is stunning, with the colors almost popping off the screen. The stereo track is perfectly acceptable, with dialogue easily heard and the piano score lovingly rendered. Closed captioning is also provided.

Extras include historical notes, written reflections from six cast members, and a behind-the-scenes photo galley comprised of 20 images. Reading the historical notes is actually better than watching the miniseries, especially since liberties are taken left and right with the storytelling. As unmemorable as this miniseries is, kudos to Acorn for giving it a bit more attention than most of their releases.

Closing Statement

Considering the double-dip and quality of all three films, Wartime Britain is the literal definition of a mixed bag. The only one I can honestly recommend is Housewife, 49, as Day and Island don't live up to their potential. In the end, history buffs might be able to get more out of the set than the average viewer.

The Verdict

Day and Housewife are free to go, but Island is found guilty of over-length and boredom. As for Acorn Media, they are charged with double-dipping, but since this is their first offense, they're let off the hook.

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Scales of Justice, The Heat Of The Day

Video: 70
Audio: 75
Extras: 60
Acting: 84
Story: 80
Judgment: 78

Perp Profile, The Heat Of The Day

Studio: Acorn Media
Video Formats:
• Full Frame
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
• English (SDH)
Running Time: 106 Minutes
Release Year: 1989
MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Distinguishing Marks, The Heat Of The Day

• Filmographies
• Biography

Scales of Justice, Island At War

Video: 95
Audio: 90
Extras: 88
Acting: 75
Story: 45
Judgment: 61

Perp Profile, Island At War

Studio: Acorn Media
Video Formats:
• 1.85:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
• English (CC)
Running Time: 398 Minutes
Release Year: 2004
MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Distinguishing Marks, Island At War

• Featurette
• Photo Gallery
• Historical Notes
• Filmographies

Scales of Justice, Housewife, 49

Video: 90
Audio: 90
Extras: 88
Acting: 96
Story: 93
Judgment: 92

Perp Profile, Housewife, 49

Studio: Acorn Media
Video Formats:
• 1.85:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
• None
Running Time: 93 Minutes
Release Year: 2006
MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Distinguishing Marks, Housewife, 49

• Interview
• Filmographies

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