Judge Gordon Sullivan is a man of substance. Pizza is a substance, you know.
"Inspiring stories of love, power, and determination."
Sometimes it is difficult to fathom why certain DVDs get released when they do. With new movies releases are timed to maximize box-office receipts while capitalizing on any popularity the film had in theaters. However, with catalogue titles it can be much more difficult to figure out the logic of the release schedule, especially when a previous DVD exists. However, I'm going to go out on a limb and suggest that the A Woman of Substance Trilogy is getting a twenty-first century DVD re-release because of all the eager fans of Downton Abbey who are waiting between the second and third series. With no new tales of Lord and Lady Grantham to fill the television, fans of British period dramas will likely turn elsewhere, and there are worse places to turn than these three miniseries.
A Woman of Substance begins with an aged Emma Harte (Deborah Kerr, Black Narcissus) in 1970, a successful businesswoman who manages the Harte empire of department stores. She discovers that her children plan to break up her empire after her death, and this leads Emma to reminisce about how she acquired that empire, from her humble beginnings as a servant in a great house to her marriage to a trade magnate. The other two miniseries (Hold the Dream and To Be the Best) take the story "full circle" as we watch Emma's descendants try to hold on to the empire she has amassed.
In many ways it is unfair to compare Downton Abbey with A Woman of Substance. The former is an upstairs-downstairs drama focused on a great house, while the latter is much more focused on the life of a single character as she movies through history. However, there are a number of significant overlaps:
• A certain epic sweep and sense of time. Because the characters are so finely drawn and the show's pace handled so well, it can be hard to remember that Downton Abbey dispenses with five years of time in only sixteen episodes. Though A Woman of Substance covers many more years (decades, in fact), it still has the basic sweep of British history behind it, as we see the coming of war, World War II especially. To achieve this, the show can sometimes skips across months or years as we learn about changes through dialogue rather than witnessing them ourselves. The effect is to relive a significant period in British history as society changes, and Emma Harte is poised to reveal though changes better than almost anyone.
• Obession with period detail. Though many of the costumes will look more modern than those featured on Downton Abbey, A Woman of Substance is really a period drama. That means lots of pretty costumes for fans to "ohh" and "ahh" over. While the series obviously didn't have the most lavish budget, the costumes are certainly pretty to look at.
• Excellent actors. Downton Abbey is one of the most perfectly cast shows ever made, and A Woman of Substance nearly matches it. From Deborah Kerr to a young Liam Neeson, everyone is well chosen and on their game. Later series add luminaries like Anthony Hopkins to the rolls with good effect.
All, however, is not so favorable for the show. A few problems certainly crop up with this set:
• The second and third entries in the "trilogy." A Woman of Substance is a solid little period miniseries of the type that had a lot of cache in the Eighties, but the sequels are horribly unnecessary. Everything that made the first one charming (its period setting, Emma's scrappy rise from servant to trade empress) is thrown out in the sequels in favor of Dallas-style soap opera machinations. Though the acting and period detail stay strong, the stories are simply not as engaging.
• The DVDs. The original A Woman of Substance was made in 1984, and it shows. Though the original source appears to be in okay (though not great) shape, colors look really "blah" and grain is a bit distracting at times. Things get slightly better with the later entries, but these are not reference quality transfers. Though a full-on restoration is out of the question given the limited fan base for these series, those who purchase these disc probably won't find the problems too distracting. The audio is similarly okay but not great. Dialogue is clean and clear, but the track sounds a bit dated. I do, however, appreciate the almost 60 minutes of interviews with the writer of the novels on which the series are based, Barbara Taylor Bradford. She discusses a lot of interesting aspects of the novel and the series. There's also a short interview with producer/actress Diane Baker on the making of the series.
The A Woman of Substance Trilogy is a fine little British period drama, if you ignore the fact that the second and third installments aren't up to snuff. However, even those less-than-stellar entries will likely appeal to fans of British costume dramas for their use of setting alone. The extras aren't extensive and the presentation isn't immaculate, but this set is worth a rental to fans of the period dramas. Fans who already own the 2002 DVD release have no reason to upgrade.
Though the court could live without the sequels, A Woman of Substance
is not guilty.
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