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Under Capricorn (Miniseries) DVD Review

Under Capricorn (1984) DVD cover art -- click to buy from Amazon.com Under Capricorn
Miniseries & DVD Details

Director: Rod Hardy / Writers: Helen Simpson (novel), Tony Morphett (dramatisation)

Cast: Lisa Harrow (Lady Henrietta Flusky), John Hallam (Samson Flusky), Peter Cousens (Charles Adare), Julia Blake (Miss Milly), Cathrine Lynch (Susan Quaife), Jim Holt (William Winter), Peter Collingwood (Governor), Dennis Olsen (Banks), Frank Gallacher (Mr. Quaife), Daphne Grey (Sal), Ellen Freeman (Flo), Jo England (Meg), Gordon Lunyupi (Ketch), Henry Salter (Bourne), Geoffrey Pullan (Colonel Williams), Patrick Frost (Captain Macdonald), Edward Caddick (Bank Secretary), Barbara Crompton (Mrs. Evans), Audrey Stern (Mrs. McPhail), Barbara West (Mrs. Fitzpatrick), Peter Osborn (Chaplain Forsyth)

Running Time: 203 Minutes (2 parts) (1:43:45 & 1:39:50) / Rating: Not Rated

1.33:1 Fullscreen / Dolby Mono 2.0 (English)
Subtitles: English for Hearing Impaired; Not Closed Captioned
Originally Aired in Australia June 1, 1984
Suggested Retail Price: $39.99 / DVD Release Date: February 25, 2014
Two single-sided discs (1 DVD-9 & 1 DVD-5) / Black Keepcase in Cardboard Slipcover

Buy Under Capricorn on DVD at Amazon.com

Before her death at age 42 from cancer, Helen Simpson was selected as a British parliamentary candidate. Before that, she wrote poems, plays, fairy stories and novels. Simpson, an Australian who spent much of her life in England, would contribute to three early Alfred Hitchcock films.
Her 1929 crime novel Enter Sir John became his 1930 talkie Murder! Hitch's 1936 film Sabotage credited Simpson and a man with the dialogue. Then, nine years after her 1940 passing, Hitchcock directed an adaptation of one of her final novels with a cast led by Ingrid Bergman and Joseph Cotten. In the early 1980s, that same novel became the miniseries Under Capricorn.

Written in 1937 and set a hundred years earlier, Under Capricorn begins with the arrival of Charles Adare (Peter Cousens) in New South Wales, Australia. A 20-year-old man from Western Ireland, Charles is cousin to NSW's governor. That connection earns him respect, but he has fewer than 100 pounds to his name. Told he can double his money in 25 years, Charles takes greater interest in Samson Flusky (John Hallam), a quiet man who similarly arrived with little and found wealth in just five years. In an attempt to get rich quick, Charles gets involved in some shady land selling deal with Flusky.

A broke, interested young Charles Adare (Peter Cousens) goes into business with wealthy ex-con Samson Flusky (John Hallam). "Lady" Henrietta Flusky (Lisa Harrow) makes quite the entrance in the 1980s miniseries "Under Capricorn."

Just as we seem to be settling into a stuffy period drama populated exclusively by men, who should turn up at Flusky's dinner party but his striking redhead wife, Lady Henrietta (Lisa Harrow), her emotions and cleavage on display. Henrietta, whose ladyship is disputed by a staff member, has a drink and leaves, but not before recognizing Charles, who knew her indirectly as Hattie Considine. The first to vocalize her problem, Charles helps restore Henrietta, a bedridden alcoholic, to some degree of health and order. That isn't easy to do because the head of the Flusky housekeeping staff, Miss Milly (Julia Blake), has been giving Henrietta bottles of booze for some time.

Though Henrietta improves and Miss Milly is let go, the second half of this two-part series finds Charles away and feared dead on a gold search that Mr. Flusky has bankrolled. Henrietta, who has developed a fondness for Charles, falls back into her state of decline as Milly returns and so too the stealth drinks. Some solace is provided by Susan Quaife (Cathrine Lynch), a barber's daughter whom Charles discovered at a ball.

Along the way, secrets are spilled, letters are received and withheld, a shrunken head is feared, and others try to expose the ulterior motives of the snow white, ice cold Milly.

With Charles gone off on a dangerous treasure hunt, Henrietta (Lisa Harrow) loses her mind a bit in Part Two. Housekeeper Miss Milly (Julia Blake) won't allow a visit from Henrietta's invited guest, barber's daughter Susan Quaife (Cathrine Lynch).

It's easy to see similarities between Under Capricorn and Rebecca, the Daphne du Maurier novel that became Hitchcock's only Best Picture Oscar winner.
The two deal with acquired wealth, closet skeletons, and manipulative housekeepers. This 3-hour miniseries does not give Hitchcock's Rebecca a run for its money, but it is well-acted and reasonably engaging. While admittedly a bit sudsy, domestic and uneventful (alcoholism is far from the taboo it once was), the end arrives with you feeling the experience has been somewhat edifying or at least dramatically rewarding.

There is not much information out there about this program, which was produced and shot in Australia with a predominantly British cast. The end credits supply a copyright date of 1982. IMDb lists a June 1, 1984 Sydney broadcast date (for cinematic context, that's a week before Ghostbusters and Gremlins opened in US theaters) but claims it first aired sometime in 1983 in Adelaide, South Australia. The press release for this DVD indicates that the cover's claim "As seen on A&E" refers to an American airing sometime in the late 1980s. Not many Brits, Australians, or Americans seem to remember the miniseries well. Only 26 users have given it a score on IMDb, which averages out to an unremarkable 6.8.

There are no huge names in the cast, but the actors have come and gone, mostly performing in British and Australian television. The most accomplished cast member, John Hallam, held smallish supporting roles in a number of major feature films, including Flash Gordon, Dragonslayer, Kevin Costner's Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, and the original The Wicker Man, before his death in 2006. The UK's Julia Blake has remained steadily employed, popping up in such Hollywood fare as Aquamarine, Don't Be Afraid of the Dark, and X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Peter Cousens and Lisa Harrow have had lapses, but both have been acting again lately. Harrow is on the New Zealand TV dramedy "Step Dave." Cousens has recently ventured behind the camera to direct Carry Me Home, an upcoming slave escape drama starring Cuba Gooding Jr. Sixth-billed actor Jim Holt appeared in Crocodile Dundee II (where he was billed eighth).

This Under Capricorn has apparently never before been on Region 1 DVD until this week. It was released to VHS, possibly in the early 1990s, by genre distributor Prism Entertainment, who bizarrely marketed it with the tagline "A curious supernatural drama, with the spirit and flair of Peter Weir's The Last Wave." Now, the series is widely available in a two-disc DVD release making no such claims by leading British and Australian TV exporter Acorn Media.

Henrietta's drinking problem (Lisa Harrow) makes her the ridicule of the housekeeping staff. Mr. Flusky (John Hallam) doesn't always care for what his new housekeeper Winter (Jim Holt) has to tell him.

VIDEO and AUDIO

On the package and before the feature plays, the DVD displays a warning about age and resolution related flaws in the material that could not be improved. That's a good tactic because it makes you brace for the worst.
And while there are some issues, your lowered expectations are more or less met and you can take comfort in the fact that the studio at least noticed and cared about the shortcomings. Given the choice between a release with a disclaimer and no release at all, who wouldn't prefer the former?

The 1.33:1 fullscreen picture is indeed subject to occasional specks, scratches and some green lines you'll notice. Perhaps more troubling is the fact that even when no such intrusions present themselves, the video remains blurry, looking like a degraded VHS or a standard definition ION Television broadcast. I'm sure this reflects the production methods and how the series looked on television three decades ago. Still, it's rare to find such troubled picture quality on a 2014 home video release.

The monaural Dolby 2.0 sound can't hide its age either, the recordings being limited and inconsistent but always perfectly synched. As usual, Acorn Media kindly provides English SDH subtitles should you need the occasional clarification.

Renowned for their synopses, Acorn Media describes each installment right on the discs' main menus. The Scene Selection menus aren't as descriptive or illustrated.

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS, PACKAGING and DESIGN

Unusual for an Acorn Media DVD but understandable given the subject's age and obscurity, nary a bonus feature is included here.

Disc One opens with a 2-minute promo surveying Acorn Media's many properties followed by individual trailers for "The Pallisers": 40th Anniversary Edition and The Road from Coorain.

An insert promoting Acorn's streaming service and social network pages join the two plainly-labeled silver discs in the keepcase whose artwork is reproduced on a glossy slipcover.

The static main menus set the opening titles' score to a brief synopsis of that disc's installment, which is also given a simple scene selection menu.

Samson Flusky (John Hallam) listens to conflicting accounts with a thin cigar in his hand. Charles (Peter Cousens) and Susan (Cathrine Lynch) are happy to reunite, but her father the barber (Frank Gallacher) seems less than enthused.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

The passage of thirty years has rendered the miniseries Under Capricorn quite obscure, but it's a decent period drama that should interest those who know the book and those who appreciate Alfred Hitchcock's earlier films. While Acorn Media's DVD is basic, kind of expensive, and not so picturesque, it seems safe to say that this is the best release it'll get in physical media.

Buy Under the Capricorn on DVD at Amazon.com

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Reviewed February 27, 2014.



Text copyright 2013 DVDizzy.com. Images copyright 1982 South Australian Film Corporation and 2014 RLJ Entertainment and Acorn Media.
Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.