Sophie’s Choice appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; the image has NOT been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. The transfer suffered from a mix of concerns.
Sharpness presented many of these. At best, the movie seemed acceptably concise. The best looking scenes came from daytime Brooklyn shots and involved close-ups. Otherwise, much of the film appeared rather soft and ill-defined. I noticed a moderate amount of jagged edges and shimmering, and I also witnessed light edge enhancement. The presentation could look rough and without great delineation.
One odd note about the transfer: during the Nazi-era scenes, extensive use of subtitles occurred since the characters all speak in German or Polish. At times, the very bottoms of some letters - like lower-case "y"'s – were cut off at the lower portion of the frame. As one can see during the DVD's documentary, Choice was filmed fullframe and then matted for the correct 1.85:1 ratio. It appeared that they simply masked the bottom of the frame slightly incorrectly, as you can see the fuller image in the fullscreen shots shown in the documentary. This doesn't affect readability during the film – it never confused me - but it looks weird and also presents the possibility of distracting the viewer. This issue popped up inconsistently, as most letters looked fine, but more than a few became cropped.
The print used for the transfer displayed a fair amount of fine grain throughout the movie. Other flaws appear as well. I saw examples of specks, blotches, nicks, scratches and marks. Though these never became truly heavy, they offered more distractions than I’d like.
The subject of color in Choice was an unusual one because of the way it's used. During the Brooklyn shots, hues looked fairly normal, though with a slightly golden tint. I thought the hues were decent, though they could seem a bit faded and bland. Colors almost totally vanished during the flashbacks to Nazi-era scenes. Clearly this was intentional, but I must admit it's somewhat distracting; it's almost black and white but not fully desaturated enough to eliminate all traces of color. No, it didn't hurt the scenes - they remain the most powerful in the film - but I must admit the "nearly black and white" distracted me.
Black levels appeared generally adequate in Choice, though I thought they often could be somewhat bland and overly gray. This was especially problematic during the pseudo-black and white scenes, which came across the worst. Shadow detail seemed passable at best but could seem muddy and dense at times. All in all, the visuals suffered from too many problems to earn anything better than a “D+”.
While I didn't expect - or want - a full-on sonic assault to occur in this kind of movie, I would have liked to find a better track than the Dolby Surround 2.0 audio of Choice. The sound remained almost completely bound to the front center channel; literally all dialogue and effects emanated from that speaker. Only Marvin Hamlisch's score spread to the side and the rear channels, and it did so decently but didn't add much to the presentation.
Again, the lack of audio atmosphere does not really bother me. The track seemed a bit bland and unambitious but it largely worked for the film. More problematic was the quality of the sound. It's not terrible, but it lacked the warmth and depth I'd expect from a movie from 1982. All aspects of the sound seemed strangely compressed and lacked any sort of breadth. It all sounded somewhat stifled. Music came across the best and it sometimes appeared relatively lively, but it still came across with little dynamic range.
Because Choice was such a speech-intensive film, the somewhat weak quality of the dialogue was the biggest detriment. It seemed dull and muffled on many occasions. The same qualities marred the effects, but since these tended to be such a minor aspect of the soundtrack, it's less of an issue. The audio in Choice was never really bad, but it remained a disappointment nonetheless.
Sophie's Choice isn't chock full of extras, but it tosses in a few very good ones. First up is an excellent 52-minute and 38-second documentary called Death Dreams of Mourning. This piece involves all of the important players in the film - including actors Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Peter MacNicol, director Alan J. Pakula, novelist William Styron and composer Marvin Hamlisch - through recent (circa 1997) interviews. In addition, we hear from Holocaust survivors and others who are well-acquainted with that subject.
While I enjoyed the aspects of the program that discuss the film itself - especially when Streep talks about her acting - it's the way the discussion of SC is integrated with the details about the actual history of the concentration camps and the experiences of those who went there that makes this piece so interesting. Of particular note is the emphasis placed on discussing the after-effects of Holocaust survivors; since that's a focus in the film itself, the issue makes sense in the documentary as well. The program's excellent and packs quite an emotional punch itself.
One comment about the documentary: if you haven't already seen the film, do not watch "Death Dreams of Mourning" before you view the movie itself. That's always a sensible lesson when it comes to supplements, but it's even more vital here. Actually, don't watch any of the extras before you see the film - they won't ruin the experience (which the documentary will) but they won't enhance it.
Next we hear a running, screen-specific audio commentary from Pakula. The director discusses storytelling and point of view, cast, performances and relationships, the use of narration, financing problems, and a few other production topics.
At his best, Pakula provides a thoughtful, intelligent view of his film. He deals with the creative issues well and offers a nicely insightful take on things. Unfortunately, he goes silent an awful lot of the time, and the commentary lacks breadth. Pakula sticks with the story side of things so intensely that we don’t get a good feel for other subjects and the production as a whole. This remains a valuable commentary but it’s an erratic one.
Finally, the DVD features a not-so-hot theatrical trailer - which makes the film seem overly romantic - and decent biographies for actors Streep, Kline and MacNicol and director Pakula. At least one odd error appears in those listings, however; the filmography for Streep states that she performed in Antz, which was not the case. This DVD hit the shelves about six months prior to that film's release - which means they were written at least a few months before then - so I'd guess that perhaps Streep was going to appear in Antz but it didn't obviously didn't happen. Either that or the folks at Artisan just made a mistake!
The DVD also includes some very good text production notes on the disc itself. These aren't very long but they are unusually provocative and compelling. For example, we learn that Goldie Hawn stumped hard to be cast as Sophie!
Sophie's Choice is one of the best movies ever made. Even though I've seen it a few times, it retains its power to stun and provoke; I may know what's coming, but that doesn't alter the movie's devastating impact. Unfortunately, the DVD disappoints. We get some quality extras, but both picture and sound seem flawed. This is a weak release for an excellent film.