A Delicate Balance Review

The aim of the American Film Theatre series was to preserve important plays and theatre productions on film with the best acting and directing talent, not as adaptations to the screen nor as filmed theatre, but to use film techniques to capture the complete experience of stage drama and make them available and accessible to everyone. The film version of Edward Albee’s Pulitzer Prize winning 1966 play, A Delicate Balance, directed by Tony Richardson for the AFT is in this respect a completely faithful translation of the play to film, under the control of the playwright himself.

A Delicate Balance retains many of the same themes and characteristics of Albee’s earlier 1962 play Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? and indeed the filmed version of that play starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton – the neuroses of upper-middle class American WASPs – alcoholism, divorce, the fear of growing old, being alone, the dislike of others of their kind and hence the hatred of themselves. A Delicate Balance puts a bunch of these neurotic characters together in a room and lets the sparks fly through a series of caustic exchanges.

Tobias (Paul Scofield) and Agnes (Katherine Hepburn) are a middle-aged couple in comfortable crisis. The memory of a dead son Teddy and disaster of their daughter Julia’s relationships has put up an insurmountable barrier between them, and their marriage balances on the fragile ground of their mutual disappointment. The presence of Agnes’ alcoholic sister Claire (Kate Reid) serves both to heighten tensions and serve as a focus for the weakness in their own relationship. Julia (Lee Remick) returns back to the family nest after the collapse of her fourth marriage, but finds her old room occupied by friends of the family Harry and Edna (Joseph Cotton and Betsy Blair), who have left home, fleeing from some unknown terror.

Cinematically there is little you can do with such a dramatic situation which relies more on talk and expression than development of plot or action. As Albee couldn’t get first choice Ingmar Bergman to direct the play, Tony Richardson was the only real alternative –a British director who didn’t typically to work with such material, but had great knowledge and experience both of theatre and its adaptation to the screen. He handles the play and the actors superbly. With cinematographer David Watkins (who also worked on The Homecoming), he creates some marvellous arrangements and compositions, positioning characters around the rooms into dominant or confrontational arrangements. Whether it is through this, the strong pre-rehearsals or the simple fact that it is an intact theatrical experience and not a film adaptation, the characters come fully alive and the acting performances are magnificent. Hepburn, a fine actress, puts in one of the best performances of her career as Agnes. Canadian actress Kate Reid, brought in at the last moment to replace Kim Stanley, whose real-life alcoholism was causing problems for Hepburn, could almost steal the show if Albee, quite deliberately while writing the play, hadn’t cut-back her role after the First Act. Only Scofield, for me, doesn’t strike the right note, remaining theatrically mannered in his delivery and he doesn’t so much slip out of accent as occasionally slip into it. The other performances are faultless, balancing the overall tone of the drama - Lee Remick hysterically vicious, while Joseph Cotton plays an understated shuffling discomfort and Betsy Blair is icily cool. A Delicate Balance is a fine example of the achievement of the AFT’s aims, giving Albee’s vicious and barbed dialogue in full, to a superb cast working as an ensemble, who sink their teeth into it with relish.

A Delicate Balance follows the AFT releases of The Homecoming and Butley as part of the complete set of all fourteen titles in the American Film Theatre Collection. Details of the collection can be found here. Each of the releases contains a substantial number of high quality extra features.

Print colours are slightly faded, allowing brown tones to dominate and wash-out blacks, which are flat and murky, showing no detail whatsoever. This problem doesn’t seem quite so apparent in the later scenes and it’s not as noticeable in the clips used to illustrate the interviews, so it could be down to the transfer. The softness of the image doesn’t help, looking almost out of focus in places, particularly in medium to wide shots. There is no real trouble with grain, there are few marks or dust spots of any note and there are no digital artefacts. It’s a fairly clean transfer which looks reasonably good in places and is certainly a more than adequate presentation of the material.

The audio quality is good. Lines are clearly delivered and there’s no background noise. There doesn’t appear to be any stereo separation, so it looks like the original soundtrack was mono.

There are no hard of hearing subtitles on the feature or on the extra features.

Interview with Edward Albee (19:41)
The playwright gives his thoughts on the weaknesses of the previous film adaptation of his work – Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?, and how he had complete control over how A Delicate Balance was to be filmed. He discusses various aspects of the casting and filming.

Interview with David Watkin (24:47)
This is the same interview with cinematographer Watkin that is present on The Homecoming DVD. His discussion of A Delicate Balance is mostly anecdotes about Katherine Hepburn. He gives credit for the camera movement and positioning to the director and camera operator, his role being more concerned with the technical aspects of lenses, film stock and particularly the lighting of each scene.

Interview with Betsy Blair-Reisz (19:54)
The actress talks about the atmosphere on the set, from rehearsals to filming, with anecdotes about the cast. All the interviews touch on the subject of Kim Stanley’s dismissal from the film.

AFT Trailer Gallery
Trailers are included for A Delicate Balance (3:19), The Man In The Glass Booth (2:27), The Homecoming (2:29), Butley (2:53), and the next releases in the series, The Ice Man Cometh (2:37), Rhinoceros (1:50) and The Maids (2:57).

AFT Cinebill
This serves as theatre programme notes, divided into four text articles. In Cukor Interlude – On Katherine Hepburn, George Cukor reflects on his film work with Hepburn. Edward Albee – On Making Authors Happy are notes by the playwright on his plays that didn’t make it to the screen and those that did. Richardson – He Began As An Angry Young Director extensively covers Richardson’s stage and screen work. As a British stage actor, Scofield – In The Best British Tradition provides information for American audiences on Scofield’s status.

Stills Gallery
A brief still’s gallery contains 6 black& white and colour images that can be seen elsewhere among the interviews.

Edward Albee and A Delicate Balance”, by Michael Feingold, the Chief Theatre Critic for the Village Voice, is a recent article chronicling Albee’s career, his successes and varied critical responses to his work.

The film’s subject matter, characters and the stagey manner of the dialogues may not be to everyone’s liking, but the cast and performances in A Delicate Balance are extraordinary, the staging superb and it is completely faithful in every respect to the intentions of the playwright. The quality of the DVD transfer is slightly better than the earlier AFT releases of The Homecoming and Butley and the extra features are no less extensive and informative.

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