On the Black Hill [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray B - United Kingdom - British Film Institute
Review written by and copyright: James-Masaki Ryan (24th August 2016).
The Film

“On the Black Hill” (1988)

The story follows the lives of a family in a rural Welsh town over the course of an 80 year period from the turn of the 20th century onward. Amos Jones is a farmer who was born and raised in the area who falls in love with Mary Latimer - the daughter of a well-traveled viceroy. The two couldn’t be more opposite. Amos has only seen the rural world around him all his life. Mary has lived in India, traveled to the Middle East, and seen and learned about the world over with her father. But following the death of her father and being in a very emotionally broken state, Amos is first to console her and help her through the grieving - from horseriding to appreciating the landscape. Marriage comes next for them, along with buying a farmhouse coined “The Vision”. Their marriage is not an entirely happy one, as immediately into it there is tension. She talks about her travels and her father’s work to the townsfolk, but it both angers and embarrasses Amos - as he nor the rural townsfolk can relate, and indirectly makes her look elite or smarter than everyone else even if not the intention. When she makes dinner for him, it’s hot Indian curry, angering Amos as he wants “normal” food. Things start to move toward a happier environment with the birth of their twin sons Lewis and Benjamin. This is followed by the birth of their daughter Rebecca a few years later. Mary tries to be a caring, loving, and inspiring mother to the children, but Amos has his strong force as influence on the entire family. As time passes on, the family goes through a multitude of events - through love, death, war, and more.

The film is not one of straightforward plot but one that shows a linear passage of time through the eyes of one family. The first half is completely through the eyes of father Amos while the second half changes to the eyes of the twin sons Lewis and Benjamin. It was unexpected for a change of a main character midway through, but with the first half establishing the Amos and Mary’s characters and relationship together throughout the years, it gives a deeper understanding to the characteristics of the children. Amos is filled with frustration - His wife having differing values, his rivalry with the neighbor about the border, his anger towards the English government, etc. At times his anger turns to violence such as when he beats the teenage neighbor Jim badly after catching him stealing geese. The time he throws a book at Mary’s face is a very harsh scene as well - and he throws her book of “Wuthering Heights” to add to it. Mary on the other hand being well educated and liberal with worldly views is a sharp contrast to him. Bob Peck and Gemma Jones play all incarnations of Amos and Mary throughout the years from their first meeting until their old age. Interestingly Peck had to wear brown contacts to cover his blue eyes for production. The children cast had brown eyes and would have made no sense if both parent had blue eyes. Both actors are excellent in their roles, though the role of Mary doesn’t seem to get enough screentime, favoring Amos for the most part.

As for the children, the twin boys Lewis and Benjamin are played by multiple brothers at differing stages of their lives. Rhys Baker and Aled Baker play the kids at 6 years old, Huw Toghill and Gareth Toghill play the kids at 12, and Mike Gwilym and Robert Gwilyn play them as adults. The boys go through everything together. Inseparable from birth they play together and work together through the many long years. As much as they are interested in things such as aeroplanes, it is quite impossible for them to leave The Vision and stay on the property for almost all their lives. It’s clear that their father’s influence was much stronger for place and environment rather than their mother’s. War is the only time that separates them. There are many films and in real life that have examples of twins being inseparable, such as “Dead Ringers”, “Adaptation”, or even the various Mary Kate and Ashley films which they are stuck together not physically like conjoined twins but on a mental and metaphysical level. They can finish each other’s sentences, think and feel together as they are one. Even at 80 years old Lewis and Benjamin still sleep in the same bed. Besides the twin factor, it is interesting to see the influence the two have from both their mother and father in personality and way of living - in repression yet content. Rebecca who was played by Claire Evans at age 7 and by Lynn Gardner as an adult does not get very much time as a character, as the attention is more on the boys and their growth although she is the character that commits the ultimate form of defiance by becoming pregnant by an Irish boy and being banished from The Vision by the father.

The film was based on the 1983 novel of the same name by Bruce Chatwin. With his previous works such as “In Patagonia” and “The Viceroy of Ouidah” which are about travelers in far off lands, “On the Black Hill” was a 180, with the entire setting being in rural Wales with characters almost never leaving the environment. The book won James Tait Black Memorial Prize and is considered his masterpiece by many. Chatwin was not a fan of film or television adaptations of his work, but in 1987 two films were being adapted into features - “The Viceroy of Ouidah” was being made as “Cobra Verde” by Werner Herzog and “On the Black Hill” by Andrew Grieve - in his feature film directorial debut. He had started in the industry in the 1960s working as an assistant director for Ken Loach and Tony Richardson, and had a true fascination with Chatwin’s book especially being from Wales. Getting financing for “On the Black Hill” was extremely difficult. No one wanted to finance a film about a family over 80 years time in rural Wales. Many passed on the script but it was the BFI’s head of production Colin McCabe who gave a greenlight, and in addition there were no suggestions in changing the first draft. No additional exciting subplots, no war battle scenes - just as is. Chatwin visited both the “Cobra Verde” set in Ghana which was not the smoothest of shoots and the quiet and beautiful landscape in Wales for “On the Black Hill” to give his blessings. The production schedule in Wales was 7 weeks - choosing the best time of the year to be able to capture differing seasonal changes in a short period of time with a bit of set dressing and costuming to illusion the changes in time. Visually the film uses a bleach bypass process giving the picture a sheen and pale look, which downplays the lush green hills of the setting but also gives it an equally nostalgic and timeless feel. The entire production was filmed on existing sets that were scouted in Wales with nothing shot on studio settings. The actors did not have stunt doubles and had to do the actual farming themselves.

The film was released in 1988 to good acclaim, winning the Golden Seashell Award at the San Sebastián International Film Festival, though failed to gain much notice in the UK or internationally. With BFI’s dual format release this marks the high definition debut of the film on Blu-ray, giving new life to a film more or less rescued from obscurity.

Note this is a region B Blu-ray which can only be played on region B or region free Blu-ray players

Video

BFI presents the film in 1080p in the original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1 in the AVC MPEG-4 codec. The film was scanned at 2K from the original 35mm color interpolative element. As stated, the bleach bypass process has muted the colors to a pale shade, and the transfer reflects that. The picture was also digitally restored removing dust and specs from the image though it does have imperfections remaining on certain spots, but you’d really need to have a keen eye to notice. The very minor damage is never distracting, the picture is stable in framing, and colors are also stable with no fluctuations. The picture looks very good yet on the soft side, though granted that was the intention.

The film’s runtime is 116:17

Audio

English LPCM 2.0 mono
The audio was remastered from the original 35mm optical track negative. It is not a lively soundtrack with music and effects being quite minimal. It is a dialogue driven production and there are no problems with the audio in that sense. The singing of the Welsh anthem during the auction scene does get a little distorted with everyone singing, but for the most part dialogue is always intelligible and well balanced, with no pops and cracks in the soundtrack.

There are optional English HoH subtitles in a white font for the feature.

Extras

This is a dual format Blu-ray plus DVD release with the film and extras being identical in content for both discs with one minor exception of the DVD-ROM content being DVD exclusive.

Blu-ray Extras

An Introduction by Andrew Grieve (19:18)
This is a new 2016 interview with the director of the film. Grieve talks about his early days in film and television such as working with Tony Richardson, followed by discussion on “On the Black Hill”. How he felt about the book, getting the financing, location scouting, the difficulty finding actors to play the twin brothers, and the complicated and difficult release of the film.
in 1080p, in 1.78:1, in English LPCM 2.0 with no subtitles

"Special Collections Gallery" featurette (7:06)
Featuring stills in color and black and white, letters, pressbooks, poster, and flyer for the film. There is no sound, no music for this extra. Seems odd that they did not include commentary or music in the background for the extra.
in 1080p

"Shadow on the Mountains" 1931 short film directed by Arthur Elton (20:06)
This 1931 silent short film is a day in the life of a sheep farmer, directed by Arthur Elton for the Empire Marketing Board Film Unit. Rather than a simple educational film or a newsreel, there are some extraordinary shots reminiscent of European avante-garde cinema, with its use of editing, framing, and pacing. The gorgeous landscapes are intercut with closeups of the plants the sheep farmer also tends to, and interestingly there are no intertitles for explanation - it’s purely visual. The BFI’s transfer of the film is excellent. Depth and clarity is top notch with detail on the landscapes in black and white while the wrinkles on the sheep farmer is pin sharp. There are quite a lot of scratches on the frame but that is to be expected from a short film from this age. The new musical score is by Neil Thomas.
in 1080p, in 1.33:1, Music LPCM 2.0

"O'er Hill and Dale" 1932 short film directed by Basil Wright (16:00)
This 1932 short film is another day in the life of a sheep farmer, also made by the Empire Marketing Board Film Unit but this one is directed by Basil Wright and features narration by Andrew Buchanan. The farmer’s work includes taking care of the sheep and the area, rescuing a baby lamb that gets stuck in a stream, dealing with a death of a lamb, and watching out for sudden weather changes. Again this film features some very artistic shots and is close to the films by documentarian Robert Flaherty - who happened to direct “Industrial Britain” for Empire Marketing. The picture is not as good as the previous short, with a weaker image source, more damage, and having issues of warping especially at the start of the film, but the audio fares well as the narration was entirely done in studio.
in 1080p, in 1.33:1, in English LPCM 2.0 mono with no subtitles

DVD Extras

The DVD includes the film and extras listed above in standard definition PAL format with Dolby Digital audio. It also includes:

DVD-ROM - Complete Screenplay and Pressbook (PDF)
The downloadable content is exclusive to the DVD copy.

Booklet
A 36 page booket includes essays, biographies, photos, full film credits, extras credits, transfer information and acknowledgments. Essays included are “On the Black Hill” by Brian Hoyle (senior lecturer in film studies and English at the University of Dundee), ”Revisiting the Black Hill” by Andrew Grieve, ”On the Black Hill: Spirit of Place” - a 1987 Sight & Sound article by film historian and reviewer Philip Kemp, and ”On the Black Hill: The Novel” by author Jonathan Chatwin (no relation to Bruce Chatwin). There are also biographies on Bruce Chatwin and Andrew Grieve.

Although it is a good set of extras, it would have been nice to hear thoughts from the main cast in retrospective interviews, or a video extra on Bruce Chatwin and the book. There is also no commentary which would have been a good addition, whether from the director or a historian.

Overall

“On the Black Hill” was largely overshadowed by another British film about the difficulties of growing up in 1988 - “Distant Voices, Still Lives”, and by the “other” Bruce Chatwin adaptation - “Cobra Verde”. Now nearly 30 years after its release and nearly 35 years since the publication of the novel, the film is able to be seen within a new light on Blu-ray for reappraisal by a wider audience. BFI’s release offers a very good transfer and has fairly good extras to accompany the feature. Recommended.

The Film: A- Video: B+ Audio: B+ Extras: B- Overall: B+

 


DVD Compare is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program and the Amazon Europe S.a.r.l. Associates Programme, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to amazon.co.uk, amazon.com, amazon.ca, amazon.fr, and amazon.de.