A Delicate Balance [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray A - America - Kino Lorber
Review written by and copyright: Eric Cotenas (23rd May 2019).
The Film

Golden Globe (Best Supporting Actress - Motion Picture): Kate Reid (nominated) - Golden Globes, 1974

Like most of the upper middle class personages in Broadway stage dramas – particularly those of Edward Albee – on a a quiet winter night in New England, middle-aged married couple Agnes (The Lion in Winter's Katharine Hepburn) and Tobias (A Man for All Seasons's Paul Scofield) are waiting for something, along with Agnes' alcoholic sister Claire (The Andromeda Strain's Kate Reid); and, in the meantime, they have nothing more to do than to pick apart one another. Aggravated Agnes ponders whether her going completely mad would be noticed, Claire plays the "alky" for Agnes while pondering whether Tobias is capable of such a passionate act as blowing away herself, Agnes, and thrice-divorced daughter Julia away with a shotgun – not so much the act itself but explaining it to others in the aftermath – while soft-spoken Tobias tries to quell the tempers of both sisters apart and keep the peace between them. They soon learn that the house is to be upset by Julia who has left her fourth husband and will be coming home from the West Coast, but they are unprepared for the impromptu visit by longtime friends Harry (The Third Man's Joseph Cotten) and Edna (Marty's Betsy Blair) who unable to explain the sudden fear that has overtaken them and driven them from their home. They asks permission to stay with Agnes and Tobias, settling in for the night in Julia's bedroom. Agnes, Tobias, and Claire are none the wiser when Julia (The Europeans' Lee Remick) arrives to discover her bedroom taken, forcing her to sleep in her mother's room while her mother sleeps with her father. Agnes and Tobias are too polite to inquire when Harry and Edna return to their home ostensibly to change for dinner only to return with their bags packed for an extended stay. When Julia confronts her godparents, they make it clear that they as her parents' best friends belong there more so than she, driving Julia into hysterics when her mother chides her for her rudeness. After a restless night for Tobias who finds himself at a loss to understand his best friends, his daughter, and his sister-in-law while his usually domineering wife remains curiously silent, Agnes finally explains the titular "delicate balance" and why it is not a cop-out on her part. Despite winning a Pulitzer Prize for best drama and Tony Award wins and nominations in both its original and revival runs, A Delicate Balance was only adapted once for film and never for television. It certainly does pale in comparison to the better-known and more volatile Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (adapted numerous times for television and much-revived on stage in addition to the noted film adaptation), and it does feel like a play composed of big moments – Agnes' speeches, Tobias' pithy observations, the question of whether Claire is an alcoholic or just willful, Julia's resentments and incredulousness, and the infuriating aloofness of Harry and Edna – that showcase each of the characters rather than a cohesive story even with its focus on so nebulous a question as how the principal characters are to react to this unexplained fear of their best friends and how it may indeed exist in their own lives not so much less defined for them as they are less aware of it; so much so that they want to isolate Harry and Edna for fear of catching it like the plague. The delicate balance is maintained by Agnes even as others bristle in varying aggressive degrees at the way in which she has deemed herself arbiter of what is appropriate to do or say, stifling their very being for the sake of avoiding the unpleasant; either subtly but cruelly undermining or outright avoiding those who persist. It is a means of both control as well as of self-justification when passing the responsibility onto her husband for something so awkward as throwing out two life-long friends who have made themselves a nuisance, leveraging past losses, suspected infidelities, and estrangements that Tobias cannot bring himself to confess or acknowledge. The direction of Tony Richardson (Look Back in Anger) is stagey, owing as much to the on-location shooting as the fidelity to Albee's play as adapted by the author, but such a claustrophobic play lends itself to such an approach. Performances range from Hepburn pretty much playing herself in the latter half of her career to Reid given perhaps too much leeway with a character who refuses to be reined in, while Remick gets little opportunity to express range with such a reactive character. Cotten and Blair seem to be more than "underplaying" their roles in contrast to Scofield who fares best with a quiet intensity that stutters even as he finally gets to blow up and make himself heard. A Delicate Balance may perhaps best be viewed as a film for audience members who might feel as awkward as Agnes in the presence of such a performance live, and it might be interesting to see the play adapted again for film or television to determine if it is the source or the adaptation here that just feels ever so slightly off.

Video

Shot on 35mm film in actual locations with an intent to mimic and augment practical lighting, A Delicate Balance looks a trifle soft in long and medium shots while detail fares better in close-ups, although it has the look of a dated master (although it may be as much due to the intended look and film stock as even the 2K restorations of both cuts of AFT's adapation of The Iceman Cometh do not exactly pop in terms of color, depth, or fine detail).

Audio

The sole audio option is an LPCM 2.0 mono track from a mix that demands little of the digital rendering what with the clear dialogue recording, lack of nondiegetic music - a bit with Claire's accordian is meant to grate on the ears - and an extremely subdued sound effects track. Optional English SDH subtitles are also provided.

Extras

Extras start off with an interview with writer Edward Albee (21:58) who expressed disappointment with the feature adaptation of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? – which he had envisioned with Bette Davis and James Mason in the leads – and what he felt was an undeserved adaptation credit to Ernest Lehman (North by Northwest), and the greater control he had over the American Film Theatre filming of A Delicate Balance. He provides a frank assessment of Hepburn's performance, and the replacement of Kim Stanley (Séance on a Wet Afternoon) as Claire with Reid, certain line readings that he felt deviated from his intentions, as well as his initial desire for Ingmar Bergman to direct the film (Bergman having staged one of the first European productions of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. Also included is an interview with cinematographer David Watkin (24:25) which encompasses discussion of the film and AFT's adaptation of Harold Pinter/a>'s The Homecoming (the interview also appears on the Kino DVD of that film). He discusses the lighting challenges of both films, one on location and the other in the studio, as well as some of the innovations to achieve naturalistic-looking practical lighting. He also shares some memories of working with Richardson and Hepburn. Accompanying all of the AFT Blu-rays and DVDs is the interview with producer Edie Landau (26:15) which has appeared on all of the AFT Blu-rays and DVDs in which she discusses how the American Film Theatre idea grew out of the earlier "Play of the Week" television programming initiated by herself and late husband Ely Landau where they scheduled plays according to their length rather than commercial blocks of time. Their method of theatrical exhibition was born out of the manner in which they released their earlier three-hour documentary King: A Filmed Record… Montgomery to Memphis (also available on DVD from Kino Lorber). Their funding method for these productions was a combination of selling subscriptions to viewers for the entire season along with the backing of American Express. Also on all of the discs is "Ely Landau: In Front of the Camera" (6:30) is a vintage introduction by Landau that accompanied the films with a survey of the season. The disc also includes American Film Theatre Trailers for eleven titles including the feature presentation.

Overall

 


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