Equus [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray B - United Kingdom - British Film Institute
Review written by and copyright: James-Masaki Ryan (16th August 2020).
The Film

"Equus" (1977)

Psychiatrist Martin Dysart (played by Richard Burton) is given a new assignment to treat a teenage boy Alan (played by Peter Firth) that has committed a horrendous crime of blinding six horses in a stable he was working at. Even with no prior history of violent or delinquent behavior, the boy seems mentally disturbed when first brought to Dysart's office, not complying and not listening at all to the doctor. After slowing gaining trust between each other, Alan comes forth with his past, his family, and his love for horses to Dysart, and the talks piece together an odd and disturbing look at the boy's mental state, filled with repressed emotions, mental conflict, and confusion in sexual awakening.

Writer Paul Schaffer's 1973 stage play ran for lengthy periods at the National Theatre in the UK and in Broadway in America to high acclaim from critics and audiences, winning multiple awards including Tonys for Best Play and Best Direction. The minimal show was sparse in stage props, relying on the light, space, and the main performers, with performers with minotaur-like horse heads as the tragedy stricken animals. Schaffer adapted the play into a screenplay, and requested acclaimed filmmaker Sidney Lumet to direct the adaptation. With the minimal setting and fake horses not being the most feasible for a screen version, it was decided to have the film based in reality in an English setting, with a real stable with real horses, with actual sets and outdoor locations used.

"Equus" plays as a detective story but without the aid of the police or crime scene investigation. The crime is known from the start and who actually committed the crime - six horses blinded by being stabbed in the eyes with a metal object by a teenage boy who was working at the stable. Instead of "how", the story focuses on "why", with the psychiatrist trying to open the young boy's mind. Dysart not only interviews Alan, but also his parents Dora (played by Joan Plowright) and Frank Strang (played by Colin Blakely). Dora is a very religious mother, who lives by the Bible heavily and has pushed the religious right onto her son from a very early age. Frank on the other hand finds the notion of Dora's religious ways as extreme, though he is also strict in his own right towards their only child. As gathered through their talks, Dysart sees the family as extremely repressed, but is it enough to lead to violence?

There have been countless stories in history of a quiet person suddenly committing a violent act. There are instances of it being linked to religion, to peer pressure, to sexual frustration, to mental instability, and the list goes on and on. In "Equus", all of those points and the culmination of events can be traced, with Alan reminiscing about the first time he rode a horse and was mesmerized by the feeling of being as one with the animal and the freedom it gave him. This would be abruptly stopped by his controlling parents, that yell at the horseman for taking a child on a ride without their permission, and resulting in Alan's first ride ending with his first fall and a cut on the arm. It took him some time to become close to horses again, but when he did the feelings came at a time that he was reaching sexual maturity. Though the beautiful Jill (played by Jenny Agutter) is the one that helps him get a job at the stable and her training leads him to again be at one with the horses as a caretaker, things get far more disturbing when he secretly takes the horses out for midnight runs while in the nude, reaching even to an orgasmic state with the rides.

Although it might seem like the story leads towards bestiality, it doesn't quite reach that far. Instead it is about a young man not being able to understand his own sexual desires and instead finding an obsession that satisfies him physically and mentally, even if unnatural to most eyes. It is very easy to see the connection between homosexuality and repression in the story, with the stallions representing the men and Alan not understanding his emotional connection to them considering his very religious upbringing. Even when he has his first heterosexual encounter with Jill, he is unable to perform as he cannot find pleasure in seeing the girl in front of him, but his desire for something else in the stable they are in. Schaffer was gay, and though he never wrote explicitly gay works, the subtext is undeniable in "Equus". While the content might be disturbing for some, the moment that the crime of the blinding is shown in flashback is downright the most disturbing sequence in the film, even though the audience has known about it for nearly two hours at that point. Though the sequence was shot with realistic puppets of horses being stabbed in the eyes, the intercutting between the fake horses and the real ones staggering about is incredibly visceral and disturbing even knowing the stabbing was not done for real. While in the original play it is obviously not shown with real horses, the film version's shocking scene takes the fantasy element of the play and makes it too disturbingly real, for better or worse.

Peter Firth played Alan on stage in the UK and in the US and knew the role only too well when he was cast for the role of Alan in the film version. Though he might have already been in his twenties by the film adaptation, he was still able to play the teenage role without a hitch. The only sequence that comes off as unbelievable is when in flashback when he was six years old was also played by Firth and instead should have been played by a child actor. With the adult Firth supposed to be six with some camera trickery, it just looked awkward and weird through the whole sequence. Richard Burton played the role of Dysart on stage in America for a brief period, and his role is incredibly serious throughout in an almost stiff and stoic presence, rather than a psychiatrist with warmth. The two actors are able to play off each other in their scenes together very well, but the supporting parts of the Strangs and Jill are also very important to the core. Lumet previously directed some very successful adaptations of stageplays and teleplays including "12 Angry Men" (1957), "The Fugitive Kind" (1960), "Long Day's Journey into Night" (1962), "Child's Play" (1972), "The Offense" (1972), and more, and "Equus" was another acclaimed work in the director's impressive list. Though the film had a great amount of praise with Burton and Firth winning Golden Globes for their performances, Jenny Agutter winning a BAFTA, and the Oscar nominations for Burton, Firth, and Schaffer, there were also some negative critics. Some were turned off by changing the minimal setting that made the stage version so unique, others were turned off by the extreme violence in the final sequence, and some by the length of 138 minutes dragging along too slowly.

"Equus" is a divisive work that is disturbing and odd in its take with sexual confusion and emotional repression. It is not a work with easy answers, nor is it a work like Lumet's previous successes like "Dog Day Afternoon" and "Network" in its tone balancing dark comedy and drama. "Equus" can frustrate, but in one sense, that might be its actual purpose.

Note this is a region B Blu-ray

Video

The BFI presents the film in the 1.85:1 aspect ratio in 1080p AVC MPEG-4. The HD master comes from MGM. While it may not have "4K" or "2K" next to the specs, the transfer looks very strong. Colors look very solid and consistent throughout, with skintones, skies, and the landscapes of Canada (doubling for England) being natural looking. Detail is also excellent, and there is very little damage to be found in the transfer. There is very little to say about any flaws with the image here. Note that the original MGM DVDs had the aspect ratio in the European widescreen 1.66:1 aspect ratio while this is in the American theatrical 1.85:1 ratio.

The film's runtime on the Blu-ray is 137:54.

Audio

English LPCM 2.0 mono
The original mono track is presented in uncompressed 2.0. The score by Richard Rodney Bennett sounds fine, though the mono track does have its limitations with fidelity. On the positive side, dialogue is always very clear, it is well balanced with the music and effects, and there are no damage or flaws to speak of, such as hisses or pops.

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

Extras

This is a Blu-ray+DVD set with both cuts of the film and some extras on the Blu-ray and the rest of the extras on a region 2 PAL DVD.


DISC ONE (Blu-ray)

Audio Commentary with Film Historians Julie Kirgo and Nick Redman
In this commentary recorded for the US Twilight Time Blu-ray from 2014,
Kirgo and Redman include a long of information and discussion during the full length. They give biographical information on Scaffer, Lumet, and others, discuss the differences between the play and the film, background information on the film, the themes such as homosexuality and religion, and some of the criticism the film received.
in English Dolby Digital 2.0 with no subtitles

Isolated Music and Effects Track
Richard Rodney Bennett's score along with effects are offered in this alternate audio track. This feature was also offered on the Twilight Time Blu-ray, though on theirs it was lossless while the BFI's track is lossy Dolby Digital.
in Dolby Digital 2.0

"Sidney Lumet Guardian Lecture" (audio only) (88:50)
Recorded at the National Film Theatre in 1981. Sidney Lumet sits with film critic Derek Malcolm for a lengthy talk about a variety of topics, It is focused mainly on his latest film at the time, "Prince of the City", so the state of politics in America, the police, the rise of the moral right are talked about, while there are also talks of his early career in television and some of his works. Unfortunately nothing about "Equus" is here. The audio sounds mostly fine but towards the end the sound does get a little tinny.
in English Dolby Digital 2.0 with no subtitles

Peter Firth in conversation with Leigh Singer audio interview with image gallery (39:23)
In this newly recorded audio interview over the Internet with Firth and journalist Leigh Singer during the COVID-19 lockdown, Firth talks about his career from child actor to his rise to the National Theatre, some memorable moments such as when he introduced his father to Laurence Olivier, his role in "Equus" on stage and screen, and much more. The audio interview is accompanied with stills of "Equus", alongside childhood photos of Firth, photos of talked about figures, and clips of the film.
in 1080p AVC MPEG-4, in English Dolby Digital 2.0 with no subtitles

"The Watchers" 1969 short (26:27)
"The Watchers" is science fiction fantasy short that explores the supernatural and the extra-terrestrial through the eyes of a teenage girl that starts seeing mysterious images. It's quite a fascinating short but the inclusion on the "Equus" disc is a bit of a mystery. Sure both have main characters that are teens questioning themselves, but they are quite far apart in narrative and style.
in 1080p AVC MPEG-4, in 1.33:1, in English Dolby Digital 2.0 without subtitles

Trailer (2:00)
The remastered original US theatrical trailer is presented here.
in 1080p AVC MPEG-4, in 1.85:1, in English Dolby Digital 2.0 without subtitles


DISC TWO (DVD)

"In From the Cold? A Portrait of Richard Burton" 1988 documentary (121:21)
This vintage documentary chronicles the life and death of the celebrated actor in health as well as sickness. Born in Wales to a very large family in which the mother died when most of the children were still young, Burton grew up poor but raised up in the ranks of acting to the point of marrying the most powerful and successful actress of the time, Elizabeth Taylor. Not all was positive in his life, as there were cutting off ties, alcoholism, and quite a few other bad decisions. The documentary has interviews with family, friends, critics, and vintage clips of Burton as well.
in non-anamorphic 1.33:1, in English Dolby Digital 2.0 with no subtitles

"Religion and the People" 1940 documentary short (14:18)
This vintage documentary short showcases the relationship between the churches and the people that frequent them and the effects on the communities.
in non-anamorphic 1.33:1, in English Dolby Digital 2.0 with no subtitles

"The Farmer's Horse" 1951 public information film (17:34)
This short has two men - one young and one older discussing the pros and cons of having horses as part of the farming world in an era where mechanized tools are becoming more commonplace.
in non-anamorphic 1.33:1, in English Dolby Digital 2.0 with no subtitles


Booklet
A 36 page booklet is included in the first pressing, with essays, stills, and more. First, there is the essay "Equus, From Stage to Screen" by Maura Spiegel, author of "Sidney Lumet: A Life" which breaks down the play and the film and their productions. Next, there are full film credits. Biographies for Lumet and Schaffer are next, as well as special features credits and information, transfer info, and acknowledgements.


The film was previously released on Blu-ray by Twilight Time in the United States. All the extras from that release have been ported to this BFI release. It has also been released by Outplay in France on Blu-ray, which has its own exclusive extras.

Overall

"Equus" is certainly a fascinating work looking at sexuality, religious repression, and emotional breakdown from director Sidney Lumet adapting the acclaimed stage play. The performances are excellent and while there are some questionable moments, it is definitely still worth the time. The BFI release has an excellent transfer with some interesting extras included in this 2-disc set.

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

 


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