For Americans, baseball possess a kind of mythic quality we in Australia will probably never quite comprehend. It transcends sport and has become an inherent part of their culture, its players and their achievements now part of American mythology. Nowhere is that more clear than in their films about baseball, many of them possessing something akin to magic realism, and none more so than perhaps the best baseball film of all - Barry Levinson’s beloved 1984 classic ‘The Natural’. This week, Via Vision have released a world-standard Blu-ray edition of the film that does tremendous justice to this wonderful piece of entertainment.
Based on the novel by Bernard Malamud and set during the 1930s, the film tells the story of Roy Hobbs (Robert Redford), a middle-aged batter with no previous professional experience who joins the flailing New York Knights. However, Roy possesses a remarkable natural talent, quickly turning the team around and establishing himself as a legend, but the mystery and tragedy of Roy’s past haunt him and threaten to destroy his chances of being the best he can possibly be.
A potent example of pure Americana, ‘The Natural’ is a gorgeous piece of work, both for its technical skill and for its narrative integrity. It celebrates everything beautiful and poetic about the sport while balancing it with the black rot that eats away at it from the inside. Roy’s talent and love for the game are pure, but when these are mixed with public recognition and the financial gains that can be had by others from his talent, the integrity of the sport is called into question. Sports films have so much potential to be intelligent and rigorous, and though ‘The Natural’ wears its sentimentality on its sleeve, it still manages to be just that, setting a standard many films following it have tried to beat. It’s also a beautifully made film, paced so gently that it allows the narrative and characters to breathe without overstaying its welcome, and featuring absolutely stunning cinematography from Caleb Deschanel that bathes the film in a golden dream-like quality. Levinson demonstrates tremendous love and insight for the material every step of the way, and prevents it from falling into a saccharine mess by developing and nurturing its darker undercurrents. The stakes are raised high in ‘The Natural’, and even when the film falls into fantastical coincidence, it never feels disingenuous. Cementing the fairytale tone of the film is the breathtaking score from Randy Newman, a gentle American symphony that the composer has never beaten.
The all-star cast do some extraordinary work too. Redford is perfect casting for Roy, that genuine American spirit pulsing through his veins but never at the cost of detail or texture. Robert Duvall, Wilford Brimley and Richard Farnsworth are all as wonderful as you would expect, but it’s the women that really steal the spotlight. Glenn Close deservedly earned an Oscar nomination for her performance as Iris Gaines, a ghost of Roy’s past that brings back his integrity, an integrity threatened by the rambunctious Memo Paris, played with relish by a young Kim Basinger. Most arresting though is Barbara Hershey as Harriet Bird, a small but integral piece of the puzzle that sends Roy’s life into chaos. For the short time she spends on screen, it’s remarkable the impressions she leaves, sending shockwaves throughout the film.
Via Vision have been producing some terrific releases of late, but ‘The Natural’ is one of their best yet. The two-disc set includes the original theatrical cut as well as, for the first time on Blu-ray anywhere, the superior director’s cut. That we get both versions is a real coup, especially as the two versions are a fascinating variation on the same film. It’s a treatment ‘The Natural’ really deserves - it’s the definition of a crowd-pleaser, but proof that a crowd-pleaser doesn’t mean a compromise in artistic integrity. It’s a beautiful, heart-felt film executed with precision and passion, and one that captures that distinctive mythological quality that makes baseball unlike any other sport. Over thirty years since it was first released, it’s still one of the finest sports films ever made.
A potent example of pure Americana, ‘The Natural’ is a gorgeous piece of work, both for its technical skill and for its narrative integrity.
PICTURE & SOUND
Of the two versions, the 1080p 1.85:1 transfer on the theatrical cut is a little stronger than that for the director's cut. While they both capture the golden hues of the cinematography beautifully, the former does capture more detail and clarity. It may also be a little darker in its colour tones as well. This doesn’t suggest though that the director's cut is anything to scoff at, and the different really is minimal. The director's cut comes with a Dolby TrueHD 5.1 track, while the theatrical cut comes with a DTS-HD MA 5.1 track, but both have tremendous clarity, balancing the careful sound design, dialogue and rich tones of Newman’s score.
The first disc holds the director's cut, as well as an introduction from Levinson (2:07) explaining the differences between the two versions. The second disc includes the theatrical version and the bulk of the extras, carried over from the 2010 U.S. Blu-ray release. These include a terrific (if a little overblown) making-of, ‘When Lightning Strikes: Creating The Natural’ (49:56). All the major players in the making of the film are included, and speak candidly about its development and transition to the screen, including the controversial decision to change the ending from the original novel. ‘Extra Innings’ (7:12) includes a few short interviews deleted from the main documentary. The rest of the extras focus on the game itself and its relationship to the film - ‘Clubhouse Conversations’ (15:25) combines interviews with actors, players and commentators on the mythology of the sport, ‘A Natural Gunned Down: The Stalking of Eddie Waikus’ (17:08) looks at one of the true stories that inspired ‘The Natural’, and ‘Knights in Shining Armour: The Mythology of The Natural’ (9:18) looks at the story and the sport within the framework of mythology and the "hero’s journey" structure. The exhaustive set is rounded off with ‘The Heart of The Natural’ (44:07), a lengthy discussion between Levinson and legendary player Cal Ripkin Jr about the film and its legacy.