George Jacques Danton was the French revolutionary leader who eventually found himself at odds with one time ally Maximilien Robespierre and sent to the guillotine whilst still in his thirties. Assuming we’re aware of our history director Andrzej Wajda opens with the prescient image of Danton, here played by Gerard Depardieu, eyeing up the execution device and then throws us into the key events with which he concluded his life. We first meet him as he returns from exile to Paris determined to end Robespierre’s Reign of Terror – the pair’s ideologies having by now become so divergent as to make them rivals, not the friends they once were.
It’s this relationship which Wajda focuses on most fully, thereby pitching Danton as a kind of battle between the two. On one side we have Robespierre (here played by Polish actor Wojciech Pszoniak), the man of the Revolution; on the other Danton, the man of the people. And so the film bounces back and forth between them as their rivalry is divulged and their hatred for/fear of each other is revealed. Danton is essentially a political thriller made up, as it is, from back room whispers and clandestine meetings, each of which tightens the screws a little further as Danton progresses ever closer to his death. Indeed, as we move from his return to his execution, via his imprisonment and trial, the intensity grows just as it would in any given example of the genre.
Part of the reason why this works so well, however, is down to the grandstanding performances of its two leads. Pszoniak may only be tiny (or at least alongside Depardieu it appears that way) and have his voice dubbed by another actor, but there’s a remarkable intensity at work which makes you believe the power this man had and the hatred he developed for his former friend. Meanwhile, Depardieu looks even more of a giant when padded out in the extra layers of period costume and needless to say comes up with a performance to match.
Yet crucially the duo never overbalance the film as Wajda and screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière have pitched the whole thing at their level. There’s a theatrical atmosphere at times – an early scene of queuing Parisians plays out like a Greek chorus of context and exposition; even the grander, more consciously epic scenes possess a vaguely artificial design and timbre – which sits well with the proceedings, whilst the production design and score similarly aim a little higher than meagre realism. The sets are adorned in browns and greys which suit not only the occasional swings towards the grandiose (the first hour takes place in seemingly perpetual rain) but also the smaller one-on-one scenes. Likewise, Jean Prodromides’ wonderful score swirls and broods away in its own little corner only to overspill into great intensity when demanded, much like the film itself. Indeed, when Danton does go the big moments – the return engagement of Danton and Robespierre in which their pent up aggression embodies itself in almost childlike games; Depardieu screaming himself hoarse in preparation for the final half hour – it’s utterly electric and easily ranks alongside Wajda’s finest.
Danton comes to the UK DVD market as an extras-less Region 0 release. The film is presented in an aspect ratio of 1.77:1, anamorphically enhanced. For the most part the transfer is also quite a handsome one. There are minor, and rare, instances of edge enhancement, but otherwise we have a fine level of detail (so much so that a slight trace of grain becomes apparent) and colours which appear to be as intended. We also have what would appear to be some flicker on occasion, though a closer look reveals that this is the result of onscreen candles and not a fault with the disc. Indeed, the only genuine complaint is the fact that, though electronically generated, the English subtitles are non-optional. As for the soundtrack, here we find the original French mono and in fine condition at that. It remains crisp and clear throughout – to such a degree, in fact, that the actor’s who have been dubbed become readily apparent. Sadly, the disc is also entirely devoid of extras, a fact which disappoints all the more given that Danton is only the second Wajda film to see a release in the UK following Universal’s similarly extras-less Broken Silence anthology of Holocaust documentaries.