When a film, one most people were probably never aware of to begin with, is dangled for the public over 40 years since its initial release and more than a quarter of a century since it was last shown anywhere, a sense of hesitant expectation forms. Is it a forgotten master work or something so uninteresting as to have been buried all these years? Typically, and in the case of Separation, the answer is that neither of those extremes quite fits. To the credit of the BFI, now releasing Separation and two other rarely seen collaborations between Jack Bond and Jane Arden on DVD and Blu-ray, there is no claim of buried treasure forced upon us. The packaging and extra materials included with the release of Separation simply and accurately offer up the film as an unseen, worthwhile movie with little reputation. The cover art has a striking picture of Arden at a fountain alongside a short quote from The Observer classifying the film as "distressing and perceptive." Interest can be built up sort of casually then, on one's own. You can discover Separation and form your individual opinion with very little outside pressure. A lovely idea in a business where everything is the greatest this or that until the next this or that.
Now if the BFI had a really boring, self-indulgent waste of time there would be trouble. I've little doubt that some viewers, though probably not those who'd voluntarily watch it in the first place, would find Separation to fit that bill because certain people can be counted on to dislike most anything. Me, I find computer effects-laden blockbusters about giant robots to be really boring, self-indulgent wastes of time, but I digress. With apologies to the fine folks behind Masters of Cinema, the reality as I see it is that the BFI's release of Separation is the single most interesting development in UK home entertainment this year. It's like the DVD/Blu-ray deities have suddenly dropped an unopened and undisturbed time capsule from the sky, having taken time to first polish it to near-perfection. I'm quick to add that such excitement isn't just to do with the quality of the film, but also its availability. We home viewers sometimes think a new release of an older movie that's already been made available in another country or one that had been put out on VHS or even had television showings is cause for celebration. And while that certainly can be and often is true, having something as fascinating as Separation that can now be watched and purchased for the first time in many people's lifetimes is enormously exciting, like opening a door that no one at all could have entered earlier.
My feeling is that, with this edition, Separation will steadily gain the audience it's probably never had if consumers who appreciate this sort of cinema will take the film under their collective wing. It's an exceptionally difficult but never impossible puzzle less concerned with the specific elements of plot than the feelings you might take away, perhaps in the same vein as an Antonioni film, a Bergman film or maybe even some of Fellini's work. An essay in the booklet makes a small comparison with Last Year at Marienbad. When we're not exactly sure what to make of something but we know it vaguely reminds us of other things we've seen, these are the sorts of comparisons you're apt to see. Separation ultimately demands ideas and feelings, some confused and some disturbingly effective, through a perspective not often considered in film, particularly British cinema - that of the female. Specifially, our star is Jane Arden, who plays the central character here and also developed the story while her professional and romantic partner Jack Bond served as a first-time feature director. The other star of the production is cinematographer David Muir, who consistently offers up exquisite, emotionally probing shots that are reproduced with a fantastic clarity on this Blu-ray.
The main attraction, however, is certainly Arden, an actress and writer whose popularity was apparently substantial and someone intent on personal and professional evolution prior to taking her own life five days before Christmas 1982 at the age of 55. While it seems that she's now defined almost as much by her suicide death as the unique life she lead, Arden's work here and on her further teamings with Bond should have been enough to establish her as a major figure in women's filmmaking. One of the essays in this booklet even credits her as being "virtually" the only female to have directed a feature film in Britain in the entire decade of the 1970s. The performance she gives in Separation seems less the point than the overall effect of the character she plays. In other words, her emotional disintegration - begging God to free her from her own body by the end - captures an extreme disconnect and sense of hopelessness that feels unique to, whether it is or isn't, the struggle of the female. Indeed, if Separation does not play well to the more critical minded, could it perhaps be due to the fiercely feminine (though not necessarily feminist) nature of the whole thing?
The film at least believably captures the innermost thoughts and fears of a woman whose marriage is effectively done. Arden's character can be seen in various incarnations, including color footage of her with a lover in bed or dancing in front of a large screen showing the events we're watching in black and white, with a grey wig and glasses as an elderly figure and even in the form of another actress (Fay Brooke) who's basically a younger surrogate. It's confusing obviously, but there will be a bit of an epiphany if you stick with Separation long enough and work a little at discovering what the film wants to tell you as well as what it wants you to piece together for yourself. I have to admit that, superficially, the crispness of the Blu-ray and the high level of the photography made me want to continue watching regardless of where the film was going. It was reportedly shot for just £60,000, but the film looks remarkable. The black and white images are compelling enough to keep you interested regardless of any immediate concern or grasp of what's actually happening. It's completely your choice as to whether some analysis should be offered or if the simple face value approach will suffice.
As mentioned above, Separation makes its home viewing debut via the BFI, on a region-free disc. This Blu-ray is presented in 1.85:1 (not the 1.33:1 advertised on the back of the case). Despite being a single-layered disc, I can hardly imagine seeing any improvement in how the film looks or sounds. Minor inconsistences in the amount of grain, which is generally quite healthy throughout, do occur, but the quality is simply majestic overall. Detail and contrast could hardly be improved. It's not perfect in the sense of the absolute best transfer Blu-ray could produce for any film anywhere, but there's no real flaws given what the BFI was working with, and I'll take the bits of grain and occasional white speckles anytime. Anyone questioning how good a black and white film can look in high definition need only look here.
PCM Mono audio makes a fine impression. The track is boisterous, clear and more than acceptable. While Separation is largely dialogue-filled, songs from both Stanley Myers and Procol Harum dot across the picture. The track "Salad Days (Are Here Again)" features prominently, but all the musical cues are generally utilized well and strongly reproduced for this Blu-ray. It's the volume and the clarity that really make you notice how superior this must be in relation to a DVD. Subtitles are included for the hard of hearing, in English and coloured white. There are also subtitles provided to the commentary track with Jack Bond and the BFI's head of publishing Sam Dunn. Having the commentary be subtitled is always a great treat.
When releasing a potentially disorienting film like Separation, there's almost a responsibility to provide the viewer with some contextual or background material. The BFI have really come through in that regard by delivering an enjoyable commentary with director Jack Bond where he nonetheless often reflects on things tangential to the film but is kept mostly on topic by Sam Dunn. It's actually a really nice listen overall, and one which I'd recommend trying if you want a tad more light shed on the film without full (and possibly impractical) illumination. The disc also contains "Beyond Image" (14:25 [HD]), a liquid light film short from 1969 created by Mark Boyle and Joan Hills. Boyle's similar visual effects can be seen in Separation during portions of the color sequences. A high definition trailer (3:03) for Arden and Bond's Anti-Clock is also included.
Some real effort has obviously been made in providing the viewer with various forms of context in trying to decipher this film and the 36-page booklet inside the case does an excellent job of at least giving us something to consider when so little writing exists elsewhere. The contents include an assessment of the reaction upon release by Claire Monk, another essay that focuses sharply on the film by Maria Walsh, and various other pieces on recording the commentary, biographical sketches of Bond and Arden by Michael Brooke, and separate contemporary write-ups on the film's banning at the Cork Film Festival and a short, anonymous press clipping. There's also two and a half pages on "Beyond Image," as well as various stills and credits. A little digital round of applause just for the booklet would be deserved, though a standing ovation might be most appropriate for the whole release.