Underground: DVD/Blu-Ray review

Underground (1928)
Underground (1928)

Underground, surely one of the greatest “Silent London” films, has been turning our heads for some time now: at festivals, at the Barbican with the BBC Symphony Orchestra in 2011, and this year selling out screenings on its theatrical outing. This home video release is Underground’s latest, glossiest incarnation, and by rights should bring the film to the widest possible audience.

If you don’t know it (why?), the first thing you need to know about Anthony Asquith’s film is that it is an exercise in contrasts. Underground spins high drama out of a love story in a humble setting, pivoting from flirtation to daggers-drawn aggression. A hybrid romcom-thriller sounds like commercial gold, the elusive “perfect date movie”. Well, I wouldn’t necessarily argue with that assessment, but Underground is no popcorn flick: it’s passionate, arty, and unafraid to trip up the audience with a sudden, disconcerting shift in tone.

Getting down to brass tacks, this is a tale of love, jealousy, madness and missed connections. Pals Bill (Brian Aherne) and Bert (Cyril McLaglen) meet sweet Nell (Elissa Landi) on the tube one morning. Nell only has eyes for Bill, but nevertheless incurs the wrath of Kate (Norah Baring), a dangerously unhinged woman who carries a lonely torch for Bert. The narrative, and the tension, escalate as a chance meeting on the tube results in a violent confrontation at the now disused Lots Road power station. Asquith’s second film as director, the first he received a full credit for, is an astonishingly distinctive and inventive work. Everywhere there are bravura touches that mark him out as a great of British silent cinema: the shadows of tentative lovers embrace even while they pull awkwardly apart; a pub brawl is edited montage-style, a kaleidoscope of splintered violence.

So, the story of Underground may be simple, but its treatment is unexpectedly dark, stylised and violent – the good news is that this Blu-Ray does Asquith’s expressionist experiments proud. The slanting shadows of the tube tunnels and the boarding house are deep and black; the white-knuckle action of the final chase remains sharply defined.

You’ll want to turn this disc up loud too. If you haven’t heard Neil Brand’s orchestral score for Underground yet, you’ve been missing out. This full-bodied, stirring music is a masterclass in silent film music. It’s lush and classic, certainly, but unafraid to cling to the twists and jolts on the track: alert to the film’s many mood swings. Try watching any sequence in Underground with and without Brand’s score (I recommend that furtive shadow-kiss, or Kate’s mad scene) and you’ll notice how the music inhabits every corner of the film, animating it without smothering it. Should you tire of the music, there is an alternative option, one I found fascinating but initially, at least, harder to warm to. Recordist Chris Watson has created a soundtrack for Underground that uses noises rather than music. That fantasy kiss is here accompanied by the sound of trains rushing through tunnels; the birds sing when Bill and Nell picnic in the park, although the young boy’s harmonica is eerily silent. It’s finely crafted, and as artful as any musical score could hope to be. However, shoot me, but I miss the romance of the symphony orchestra in full flow.

Underground (1928)
Underground (1928)

This is a dual-format release, with plenty of room for extras (though some of them you will only find on the DVD disc). There is a brief but illuminating featurette on the restoration of the film (the short answer is that it wasn’t easy and that a French print in a Belgian archive filled in many of the gaps in the decomposing British reels) and a generous booklet featuring essays from Brand, Bryony Dixon, Christian Wolmar, Simon Murphy and Michael Brooke as well as snippets from the archive. The archive film extras are the real treat though: including glimpses of Asquith as a young boy with his notable father in tow. I was particularly taken by Under Night Streets, a 1958 documentary about the Underground network’s night workers, with its jaunty cockney narration explaining the whys and wherefores of the work done by men “hard at it, down in the hole” while the city sleeps above them.

As a souvenir of 1920s London, this is hard to beat. And it’s a damn fine treatment for a great British film. But I am greedy. This release will sit neatly on my shelf next to the BFI’s DVD of Asquith’s final silent A Cottage on Dartmoor with Stephen Horne’s brilliant score. Two out of three ain’t bad, but how about Shooting Stars to complete the set?

Underground is released on a Dual-Format DVD/Blu-Ray set by the BFI, RRP £19.99 on 17 June 2013. To pre-order, click here.

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