Release Date(s)1970 (March 1, 2019)
Studio(s)Columbia Pictures (Powerhouse Films/Indicator)
- Film/Program Grade: C
- Video Grade: A-
- Audio Grade: B+
- Extras Grade: C+
Late to the party of 1960s sexual counterculture films like Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, A Severed Head tells of a British middle class marriage between wine-tasting husband Martin (Ian Holm) and his spoiled wife Antonia (Lee Remick). After Antonia informs Martin of an ongoing affair between her and their mutual friend, a psychiatrist named Palmer (Richard Attenborough), Martin struggles with remaining civil, but also attempts to reconcile his own private affair with a woman named Georgie (Jennie Linden). Further complicating matters is Martin’s friend, a sculptor named Alexander (Clive Revill) and Palmer’s recently-arrived sister Honor (Claire Bloom), both of whom also wind up drawn into Palmer’s and Antonia’s two-timing tomfoolery.
Based upon the memorable novel of the same name by Iris Murdoch (as well as a subsequent stage version), A Severed Head is an all-around odd film. The title has very little to do with what the film is actually about, other than a vague symbolic mention of it in one scene. The comedy itself doesn’t really work, perhaps because the reactions to the situations that the characters find themselves in are quite posh and alarmingly implausible, rendering any attempts at laughter completely moot. It's also not quite as dramatic as one might expect for the exact same reason.
Yet somehow, A Severed Head is an intriguing film because of how dread-inducing it is, and at times even surrealistic. Knowing nothing about it going in, the story’s path is completely hidden from view, which makes it, at the very least, absorbing to follow along with, but its overall tone is ultimately mired in its lack of authenticity and its thoroughly ineffective comedic approach.
The cast gives good performances, including Ian Holm who carries the film’s weight almost entirely, while the cinematography is certainly reflective of the film’s stage production origins, giving characters plenty of space in the frame, but never in a boastful or radically striking way. Along with the film’s title, the opening credits sequence, which consists of spinning dolls of all of the lead characters, perhaps promises something entirely different. It’s undoubtedly meant to reflect the on and off again relationships between all of the characters (almost like a young girl playing with her toys), but instead, films like Ten Little Indians instantly spring to mind, which contain similar openings.
Above all else, A Severed Head gets points for a delightful and intriguing cast, but loses many for a not quite so funny storyline that merely peters out with an unsatisfactory conclusion.
Indicator introduces A Severed Head to Blu-ray with a solid presentation, containing a sharp and precise HD transfer. It’s totally organic in appearance with unobtrusive grain and high levels of fine detail, as well as healthy blacks and excellent brightness and contrast. The color palette is inherently muted to some degree, never really containing any potent hues other than some occasional greens from natural vegetation, but what is on hand is well-represented with good skin tones. The only noticeable leftover damage are a few lines running through the frame of one scene, which were altogether brief and likely impossible to correct naturally.
The soundtrack is presented in English mono LPCM with optional subtitles in English SDH. While narrow in nature, everything sounds as it should with clear, precise dialogue, decent sound effects, and a vigorous score, all mixed together with no distortions or instances of leftover damage, such as hiss, crackle, or dropouts.
Extras include an audio commentary with director Dick Clement; Guise and Dolls, an 8-minute interview with doll maker Saskia de Boer about the film’s opening title sequence; Slightly Saucy, a 7-minute interview with production manager Timothy Burrill who discusses the film’s production; What Happened Just Then?, a 19-minute interview with comedian and podcaster Rob Deering about his take on the film; an image gallery containing 12 promotional images; and a 32-page insert booklet featuring cast and crew information, A Severed Head: A Study in Bourgeois Perversion by Pamela Hutchinson, The Cast of A Severed Head by The Observist’s Pendennis, Three Severed Heads: From Page to Stage to Screen, a set of critical responses, the film’s original poster, and presentation details.
A Severed Head is an interesting British film artifact that not many people remember all that well, but with such an excellent cast and a mostly faithful adaptation of its source material, it’s certainly worth a look. Indicator offers another great presentation with some educational extras, making this a nice upgrade.
– Tim Salmons