Letter to Brezhnev [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray B - United Kingdom - British Film Institute
Review written by and copyright: James-Masaki Ryan (21st May 2017).
The Film

“Letter to Brezhnev” (1985)

Taking place in Kirkby, in Liverpool, Teresa (played by Margi Clarke) and Elaine (played by Alexandra Pigg) go out for a night in the town with no particular plans but to have a fun time. With no money, there isn’t much to do but the girls find their way around in unconventional ways. For a taxi ride, they share a joint with the driver who gives them a special discount. At a club where two drunken Greek men try to dance with them, Teresa pickpockets one where they get a bit more cash for the night. At a different club they encounter two Russian sailors that just arrived in town. Peter (played by Peter Firth) is the slender one which Elaine has an interest in. Teresa being the wild one is more interested in the bigger brute Sergei (pla yed by Alfred Molina) who cannot speak English, but that does not matter much to her.

Peter is soft spoken and gentle with his Russian accented English, talking to Elaine as a woman rather than a piece of meat which is what is she is more used to. She asks questions about the Soviet Union and how the conditions are supposedly terrible with starving people and the struggling middle class. He explains how the media distorts the truth about the living conditions, just as Soviet media reports how England suffers from poverty and other problems. Teresa and Sergei on the other hand are on a different plane altogether. She talks about her not so great life with the job at the chicken factory while he nods and holds her hands. She doesn’t need men talking back to her but a way to vent her frustrations plus physical comfort.

What was to be a one night stand becomes more with Elaine, as she feels very deeply for Peter and is considering moving to the Soviet Union to be with him, and that means writing a letter to then-president Brezhnev for a chance at a new life. Her friends, family, and country on the other hand are concerned for her safety of leaving the country to a communist nation.

“Letter to Brezhnev” was made during the coldest time of the cold war, only a few years away from the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the USSR, but tensions and propaganda were still high with civilians not truly understanding the life and differences of the neighboring countries. “Communist” was considered a dirty word in Capitalist nations while “Capitalist” was considered a dirty word in Communist nations. The film bridges the gap by not making things political at all but on a human level. When Elaine is asked by a reporter if she is a communist, she answers that she is human. She is not interested in the political background of the nation she wants to move to, but is only interested in the man that stole her heart. While speaking to him, she realizes that there is not that much difference between there and Kirkby. People live on the poverty line, have no hopes for a positive future, and live day by day with boring uncertainty. Surely Russia cannot be that bad! Written by Frank Clarke and directed by Chris Bernard, the film is as independent as they come, with hardships raising the funds due to the subject matter and the unmarketability of the project.

With a miniscule budget which the filmmakers equated to what would be a single day’s shoot on a Hollywood production, the film was shot on location around Liverpool, and for the actors, there were no huge names. Margi Clarke was a musician and television presenter with no film credits prior. Alexandra Pigg had television credits but none for film as well. Alfred Molina and Peter Firth on the other hand had many film, television, and theater credits prior to the film but neither were considered household names. The production had amateur production values with many shots showing shadows of camera operators and other crew cast on the characters and shaky handheld scenes of the 16mm film with improvised framing. Not to say it is bad as it gives a certain flavor of independent filmmaking that was fresh, different, and relatable compared to the crisp and clean big budget films of the time. The performers are excellent in their parts, especially the interaction between the two female leads. Their scenes together are all in all natural with some unconventional moments such as the two sharing a toilet stall taking turns peeing while talking about their night and their lives, possibly the first time a toilet scene had ever been shot like that. There is no holding back with the filthy yet truthful dialogue here. The film is not perfect by any standards, as the subplot between their friend Tracy (played by Tracy Marshak-Nash) is very unnecessary, and the scenes between Elaine and her family is way too short to give much substance.

The core of “Letter to Brezhnev” is a love conquers all, but it is left very open ended. If Elaine goes off to the Soviet Union will she really find happiness? Is staying in Kirkby her destiny as it is with others in town? The film’s message is about taking chances and whether they are good or bad, you will never know until the leap is taken. Technically the film takes place in either 1982 or before, as Leonid Brezhnev died while in office in 1982, then succeeded by Mikhail Gorbachev, who was the president when the film was made. The film was not a huge hit in England but was a smash in Liverpool playing for months and months theatrically. It was rare for Liverpool to see itself on screen in a positive manner and the film developed a cult following over the years due to the stars later careers flourishing higher and the 1980s vibe captured well.

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

Video

The BFI presents the film in 1080p in the AVC MPEG-4 codec, in the original 1.66:1 aspect ratio. Shot on Super 16mm film, the film was restored from the original negative in 2K. Considering the origins and low budget aesthetic, the remastered picture looks very good. Scratches and dust have been removed while film grain has been kept intact to keep a true film-like appearance. Colors are a bit flat for the most part, but night scenes and the night club scenes stand out with the darkness of the backgrounds with the bright colors of dresses and makeup looking wonderful.

The runtime of the film is 93:35.

Audio

English LPCM 2.0 stereo
The original stereo track has been remastered from the original stereo master elements. Considering the film is heavy with background music and dialogue, the speakers are constantly on with tracks from Bronski Beat and Sandie Shaw sounding great, but there is issue with the dialogue. The stereo effects are little on the echoey side, so the dialogue also has an echoey pitch. If Pro-logic decoding is turned on, the dialogue, music, and effects play all throughout the surround sound system making a very unnatural sounding audio track. It is recommended to hear the film with no decoding and a straight 2-speaker channel set-up.

There are optional English HoH subtitles for the main feature. There are some occasions that the subtitles to not fully caption the dialogue with a few missing words here and there for fast paced scenes.

Extras

“Letter to Brezhnev” is a 2 disc set with one Blu-ray with the film and extras, along with one DVD that has the identical contents to the Blu-ray but in the standard definition PAL format.

Audio commentary by Margi Clarke
Actress Margi Clarke gives her recollections about the film in this solo commentary. While she does point out some trivia such as her bloodshot eyes being real and where the band Echo and the Bunnymen used to live, most of the commentary is spent on pointing things out on the screen and laughing at lines rather than fully important information. The latter half gets especially tiresome with very long gaps of silence. This commentary was previously available on the 2004 UK DVD release by C’est la Vie.
in English LPCM 2.0 with no subtitles

Audio commentary by Chris Bernard and Frank Clarke
This newly recorded 2017 commentary features director Bernard with write Clarke taking a look back at the film. This commentary does have more technical background and more about the writing process, but overall it is filled with pointing things out on screen and having long silences with the latter half.
in English LPCM 2.0 with no subtitles

An Interview with Margi Clarke (34:39)
In this newly filmed interview, Clarke talks about her punk music origins, becoming a TV presenter, and about the difficulty getting the script off the ground. She also talks about the premiere in Kirkby and the impact of the film, giving actually much more information in the 35 minutes here than in the entire commentary.
in 1080p AVC MPEG-4, in 1.78:1, in English LPCM 2.0 with no subtitles

An Interview with Alexandra Pigg and Peter Firth (13:42)
The actress and actor who first met on the 1985 film have as of 2010 reunited as a real life couple. They are interviewed together and talk about their first acting roles getting started and how impactful the film was on their careers. Firth also shows some original artwork that was used in the UK posters at the time. In the opening segment of this interview, the colors are overblown later is corrected. Someone forgot to do a white balance check at the start of the interview perhaps?
in 1080p AVC MPEG-4, in 1.78:1, in English LPCM 2.0 with no subtitles

"From Liverpool with Love" featurette (15:55)
This vintage featurette has some behind the scenes footage and stills coupled with narration about the making of the film. It’s not as in depth as one would hope but features some exclusive rare footage. This featurette was previously available on the 2004 UK DVD release by C’est la Vie.
in 1080p AVC MPEG-4 (upscaled from standard definition), in 1.33:1, in English LPCM 2.0 with no subtitles

Stills and Collections Gallery
- Colour Stills
- Polaroids
- Black and White Stills
- Posters and Ephemera

A large collection of stills are provided in separate galleries, courtesy of the FilmFour archives and the cast and crew from their personal collections.

Trailer (1:27)
The trailer has been remastered, looking as good as the remastered film.
in 1080p AVC MPEG-4, in 1.66:1, in English LPCM 2.0 with no subtitles

24 Page Booklet
The booklet includes essays, photos, film credits, special features credits, transfer information, and acknowledgements. The first essay by Professor Julia Hallam of the University of Liverpool gives a great overview of the film with a short synopsis with plenty of spoilers. The next is by the writer of the film, entitled “The Making of Letter to Brezhnev” by Frank Clarke recalling the making of. “Letter from Charles Caselton” is a short appreciation written by Castelon, the associate producer of the film. There is also a contemporary review from 1985 written by Jill Forbes from Monthly Film Bulletin.

DVD Copy
The DVD offers identical content but on a PAL region 2 DVD.

While the BFI has put together a great assortment of extras, it doesn’t carry everything over from the 2004 UK DVD. That edition had three commentary tracks, one from Margi Clarke carried to the BFI release, a solo commentary from Alexandra Pigg, and another solo commentary from Bernard Clarke. Why only one was carried and not the other two is a mystery but it may be due to the content. Judging from reviews online the three commentaries could have easily have been edited into one due to the gaps and redundant information. In addition the 2004 DVD also had Joan Bakewell interviewing Frank Clarke and the cast (12:29) and a TV report from "North West Tonight" (3:22) as extras. Unfortunately for the DVD, it was an open matte 1.33:1 aspect ratio transfer and not the theatrical widescreen ratio offered on this new BFI restored edition.

Overall

“Letter to Brezhnev” is a wonderful time capsule of the early 1980s, playing a love story in a political background. The BFI release has excellent video, good audio, and an assortment of extras that are very well curated. It doesn’t include all the extras from the older DVD from C’est la Vie, but the new extras are quite good, especially the interviews. Very recommended.

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

 


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