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Site created 12/15/97.

review added: 10/7/99

Joan of Arc
1999 (1999) Alliance Atlantis (Artisan)

review by Bill Hunt, editor of The Digital Bits

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs

Joan of Arc Film Rating: A-

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B/A-/D

Specs and Features

180 mins, NR, letterboxed widescreen (approx 1.85:1), 16x9 enhanced, single-sided, RSDL dual-layered (layer switch at 1:34:02, at the start of chapter 19), Amaray keep case packaging, cast and crew biographies, production notes, film-themed menu screens, scene access (36 chapters), languages: English (DD 2.0), subtitles: none, Close Captioned

Well, it's not often that I'm surprised by a film on DVD. I missed Joan of Arc when it was originally shown on television (on CBS here in the States), and it damn near slipped under the radar on DVD as well. Artisan didn't send a screener disc for it (for shame), so I came this close to missing it altogether. But I happened be browsing the DVD offerings at a local Tower Video, and saw it on sale for $15.99. So I figured what the heck - I had originally wanted to see it on TV, so why not give it a look at such a wallet-friendly price? Am I ever glad I did, because this is as impressive a piece of made-for-television drama as I've seen in a while. It could easily pass for a theatrical release.

Despite my Catholic upbringing (yes, church school - mass every morning... ouch), I'm not overly familiar with the historical lore surrounding Joan D'Arc. So I can't really comment on how faithful this retelling of her story is. But I can discuss the film itself. The story begins in 15th Century France, smack in the middle of the Dark Ages. The country is beset with poverty, and several different countries vie for control, having divided up the French countryside as though carving a roast. In a small village at the edge of one of these territories, a young peasant girl named Joan (played by Leelee Sobieski) begins being seeing visions of angels, St. Catherine chief among them. They give Joan a mission: she must go to Charles (the Dauphin - rightful heir to the throne) and help him fight to reclaim his crown, thus uniting the French people and restoring their hope. Her father has little use for her (he'd wanted another son instead), and after her village is pillaged by the English, and her best friend is killed, she has no reason to remain. Joan finds a way to the nearby castle of Sir Robert, in the hope that he will help her reach Charles in far off Chinon. Robert has little patience for her, but when she manages to raise the morale of his subjects, he gives her safe passage. He writes a letter to Charles, claiming that Joan is the mythical Maid of Lorraine, whose coming the wizard Merlin had foretold many years before.

Upon arriving in Chinon, she manages to pass a test that the Dauphin (Neil Patrick Harris) sets for her, to see if she might indeed be the Maid. His spiritual advisor Bishop Cauchon (Peter O'Toole) is taken in by her, and Charles decides that, Maid or not, she may indeed be able to help him claim the throne. The point is, that the people believe she IS the Maid, and while Charles has been unable to motivate an army to fight the English, his soldiers would rally to fight for the Maid of Lorraine. So Charles sends his army off to rout the English, under the leadership of the trusted Captain La Hire (played by Peter Strauss), and with Joan as their figurehead. In the battle that follows, Charles' crown is won, Joan becomes a legend, and the seeds of her fate are sown. For while the new King and Cauchon are quite willing to use Joan's reputation for their own ends, they're equally willing to betray her when that suits them better.

Joan of Arc tells an epic story, with a surprisingly well-written script (maybe just a hair melodramatic, but it IS a TV miniseries after all), solid special effects, and impressive production values. Helmed by feature film director Christian Duguay (Screamers), and starring an impressive cast, this film is often stirring, occasionally touching, and at all times entertaining. Leelee Sobieski here proves that she's a serious talent. The rosy-cheeked, cherub-faced, 17-year-old shows surprising grace and ability, and manages to convey wonderful depth of emption. Is it just me, or could she be Helen Hunt's little sister? Anyway, she's supported by the aforementioned Harris, Strauss and O'Toole, as well as Chad Willett, Jacqueline Bisset, Powers Boothe, Olympia Dukakis, Robert Loggia, Maximilian Shell, and even Shirley MacLaine. O'Toole in particular stands out here. The scene where Joan and Cauchon first meet is emotionally charged - he's at first firmly set against her, but he's immediately moved by her innocence, and recognizes that her heart is pure. And you can see his emotional struggle, when he betrays her later in the film - a struggle which Joan recognizes and actually sympathizes with, despite the fact that she knows what her ultimate fate will be. And that's perhaps the story's greatest achievement. We all know that Joan is ultimately burned at the stake for heresy, that's no secret. But in this retelling, Joan is no victim - she chooses her fate willingly, making the ultimate sacrifice for her faith, and her people.

This DVD from Artisan and Alliance Atlantis is equally surprising. Despite the fact that it was made for television, the film is presented in a widescreen aspect ratio (roughly 1.85:1), and here's the big surprise - it's enhanced for widescreen displays. Don't be confused by the wording on the packaging, which refers to "16:9 fullscreen" - this is true anamorphic widescreen. The video quality is surprisingly good, and much better than I was expecting. As this was produced for TV, and sports lots of digital effects, I'm not sure if the final master was a complete film print, or a digital tape. In any case, you do see some light visible film grain, with occasional bits of dust on the print. The video is also a bit "digital" looking, with some mild artifacting and edge enhancement. You'll also notice some NTSC video artifacts as well - witness the "moire" effect visible on fine detail, such as the intricate pattern of chain mail armor on some of the soldiers. Still, all that said, the color here is stunning, with rich and accurate hues rendered throughout the program. And the contrast is also very good, with excellent shadow delineation, and crisp detail. I gave the video a "B" grade, but I have to tell you, I wanted to go higher.

The audio quality is even more unexpected. The Dolby Digital 2.0 mix exhibits excellent clarity, and surprisingly deep bass. The dialogue is always clear, and the soundstage is wider and deeper sounding than one would expect from a stereo mix, with good left/right panning. Just listen to the ambience created at the start of chapter 13, as Joan is marched down the isle of a massive stone cathedral. Only very occasionally does the audio not quite keep up with the action onscreen - the battle scene in chapters 17 and 18 absolutely screams out for full 5.1 surround. Still, for a made-for-TV, stereo mix, I was certainly impressed. Unfortunately, the extras on this disc fall quite a bit short of what I wanted. The menu screens are film-themed, but rather lame-looking, with no music or animation. Basically, all you get are production notes and cast and crew bios, and while they are more extensive than most, I would have rather had a commentary track, because I bet there are some interesting stories to be told about the production. And I would have liked to hear Sobieski talk about her role, because I'm guessing she has a lot of poise and insight for her age.

Joan of Arc is absolutely worth a spin if you have even the slightest interest. I am extremely happy that I found this film on disc. And for the budget-line price you can pick it up for, this is a terrific bargain for your entertainment dollar. I was so impressed by this film, that I wish even more money had been pumped into the DVD. Had this film been accorded a high-definition, fully-digital transfer, remixed 5.1 audio, and some better extras, this disc would be able to hang in there with the best of them. But as it is, I'm quite happy with it. This isn't Braveheart, but it'll definitely keep you going until Mel decides to grace the DVD format with his Best Picture flick. Joan of Arc is definitely recommended.

Bill Hunt
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