Blu-ray review: The Tales of Hoffman

Starring: Moria Shearer, Robert Helpmann, Frederick Ashton
Director: Powell and Pressburger

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Powell and Pressburger’s sumptuous Technicolor adaptation of Offenbach’s operetta – in which the poet hero chases various unattainable women, to little avail – has some brilliant moments, as when Frederick Ashton’s Cochenille unrolls a carpet which reveals a trompe l’oeil staircase, or, for that matter, whenever Moira Shearer is on screen. But by virtue of the very fact that it is an adaptation, it lacks the distinctive personality of the pair’s best films, and the decision to use dubbed sound throughout adds to its feeling of muffled remoteness.

It’s very much up to Shearer to give the film a pulse, and this she does enchantingly tales-of-hoffman 4well in the opening prologue and the Olympia segment, where she plays a life-size wind-up doll – there’s a real magic and allure to her dancing, as well as wit and technical bravura. You miss her whenever she’s not on screen, but by way of compensation there is the decayed opulence of Hein Heckroth’s remarkable set and costume designs, culminating in a ghostly, mausoleum-like Venice with a spooky Gothic gondola. The whole thing is undoubtedly a visual feast, but it lacks the emotional impact – and the good tunes – of the ballet sequence in The Red Shoes. Still, Powell and Pressburger fans will be delighted with this release, as will opera aficionados. 6/10

tales-of-hoffman 1The 4K transfer from the 3-strip Technicolor camera negative has plenty of detail and no grain or print damage, and Christopher Challis’ dark, dusky, sepia-tinged cinematography comes across with a painterly richness. The puppets’ ball looks especially good, a riot of lemon crinolines, and you can admire every detail of Shearer’s daringly skin tight costume in the dragonfly ballet. As a bonus this HD transfer includes some additional footage to Act III and a charming never-before-seen end titles sequence in which the singers who supplied the actors’ voices take a bow. 8/10

Martin Scorsese supplies a brief intro in which he talks about the film’s influence on his own blending of imagery and music. And there’s an interesting 18-min chat with Thelma Schoonmaker, who places The Tales of Hoffman in the context of Powell and Pressburger’s uneven post-war career before going on to discuss the film’s use of in-camera effects and the arduous restoration process. 7/10


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