If you want to talk about really great television mini-series, the name A&E has to come up inevitably and the studio once again tops the ante with their new series "Shackleton," which is now making its DVD debut as a beautiful 3-disc set.
Tagged "the greatest survival story of all a time," "Shackleton" is an adventure unlike any you may have seen before. The series tells the real-life story of the British explorer Ernest Shackleton (brought to life by Kenneth Branagh) as he dedicates his life to become the first man to reach the South Pole. In a move that everyone else thinks of as impossible, in 1914 he decides to cross the Antarctic continent to reach his goal. But his financial backers are skeptical, especially with World War I looming over their collective heads. The expedition is off to a rough start and it is only through additional funding that Shackleton can finally board his ship, the "Endurance", and make sail for the pack ice of the Weddell Sea. But that’s when the real challenge only starts.
The film sports some amazing images, as the camera captures the wild vast ice desert of the Antarctic with only a handful of men attempting to conquer it, and the film’s cinematography is certainly noteworthy. But also the cast is superb, lead by an energetic performance by Branagh, which helps immensely to lift Shackleton off the dusty pages of history books and bring him to life in flesh and blood. But also the supporting cast is splendid and rugged, just as you would expect from daring explorers a quest such as this required. The production design is also meticulous making sure every bit looks and feels accurate and properly in place as we go back in time to behold the adventure.
A&E Home Video presents "Shackleton" in a 16x9 enhanced widescreen transfer in the film’s original 1.78:1 aspect ratio. The image is meticulously clean and no defects, blemishes or other mars are evident anywhere in the transfer. The image is also free of grain, turning it into a very stable presentation. The color reproduction and contrast are very good. At times, the colors are slightly and intentionally desaturated as part of the overall look of the film, giving the film a bit of a vintage flair. At others the color scheme is bold and vibrant with strong hues. The presentation is natural-looking with good flesh tones throughout. Blacks are deep and solid and no pixel break-up or dot crawl is evident anywhere. Highlights are also very well reproduced, along the image to use a wide array of gradients. The result, an image that has amazing contrast and perfectly restores even the most subtle details and intricacies. No edge-enhancement is evident and as such, no distracting ringing artifacts are evident, despite the high contrast material found on this DVD. The compression has also been done very carefully and the presentation is free of compression artifacts. This is a flawless transfer by all means.
The DVD contains an English Dolby Stereo track that is very well suited for the film, despite the lack of surround information, underscoring the sense of documented "real life" drama rather than going for effects. The frequency response of the track is very good and has a surprisingly good level of bass integration. High ends are clean and free of distortion, and combined with the good dynamic range of the track, the disc provides a very pleasing presentation altogether. Dialogues are well-integrated and remain understandable at all times.
The score by Adrian Johnston is also notable as it helps the series dramatically quite a bit. The themes are somber at times, adventurous and heroic at others and the bleakness of the Antarctic has never been accentuated better than in some of the musical moments of the film. This is one of the cases where you feel that the music helps carry a lot of weight and Johnston managed the task with bravado.
The first two discs of the set contain the 200-minute feature presentation of the mini-series and the third disc of the set is dedicated to extras. "Breaking The Ice" is a 50-minute making-of documentary that is the sort of documentary the film and the historic background deserves. Not flashy or sensational at all, it is a look at the real men that went to conquer the ice, only to find themselves trapped in the eternal ice, as well as the production of this series on location in the Arctic Sea. You will get to see original footage from polar expeditions as well as behind-the-scenes footage from the set, complete with insightful cast and crew interviews.
The "Ernest Shackleton" of A&E’s own Biography series has also been included on this DVD, giving you an even more intimate look at the real person you just witnessed brought to life in the film. It is an extremely insightful piece of documentary about the man and the expedition that I will truly endear to you.
"Antarctica: A Frozen History" is another documentary that will leave you open-jawed, no doubt. This is the History Channel’s two-hour documentary about the eternal ice regions and it is full of the spectacular visuals and impressive background information that makes these documentaries so profound every time you catch one. It contains everything you ever wanted to know about Antarctica and the expeditions lead into these regions.
The release is rounded out by a Kenneth Branagh Biography and selected Filmography.
If you enjoyed A&E’s "Horatio Hornblower," you will love "Shackleton." This mini-series has the same production values, the same love for detail and the same scope and sense of adventuring, keeping the viewer glued to the screen. It is impossible to watch only one part of the series. Once started you will find yourself arrested in front of the screen as you will want to watch more, so make sure you allow yourself ample time. It is one of the great stories of triumph over adversity and the endurance of the human spirit. In a time where we are served one shallow Hollywood blockbuster after another, a film like this, spiced up with incredible extras like this is like a fresh breeze. This is not the fabrication of a Tinseltown writer, this is real history brought to life in a spectacular film that will sweep you off your feet! In short, this is a must-have DVD set that well deserves our rare Gold Seal of Excellence!