|Kramer vs. Kramer|
|Written by David Krauss|
|Thursday, 05 March 2009|
As the movie progresses, Ted (Dustin Hoffman) earns our admiration and respect, but the qualities that endear him to us don't come hardwired in his psyche. They have to be learned – the hard way – and if his wife, Joanna (Meryl Streep), didn't up and leave him and their young son Billy (Justin Henry), it's doubtful he ever would have changed. Before his marriage busts up, Ted takes his wife and child for granted; he works long hours at a major Manhattan advertising firm, schmoozes with his boss, and brings home a weekly paycheck while Joanna takes care of the rest. Because he's happy with their respective roles, he assumes she is, too, but being pigeonholed as "Ted's wife" and "Billy's mother" stifles Joanna's fragile sense of self, and she decides to leave to find her true identity.
Her abandonment thrusts Ted into an unfamiliar and hectic domestic world, and forces him to care for and forge a relationship with his distraught, confused, and very needy son. Ted flails about at first, trying to keep his head above water at work and give Billy the undivided support and attention he deserves, but over the course of 18 months, a mutual love and respect develop, and they build a solid, fulfilling life together. Soon, though, the delicate balance of Ted's world is upset by Joanna's return and her decision to sue for custody, which spawns a bitter court battle.
'Kramer vs. Kramer' carries plenty of emotional weight, yet the film never feels heavy. It's a small, intimate movie, and Benton (who won Oscars for direction and adapted screenplay) makes even powerful moments seem real and relatable. Though crafting a black-and-white conflict and casting Joanna as a calculating villainess would have been easy, Benton instead delves into gray areas, and the result is a thought-provoking study of gender roles and parental rights. Never does he try to manipulate our emotions or wring false sentiment from the material, and his accomplished cast rarely hits a false note. The only scenery chewers are the two attorneys (Howard Duff and George Coe), whose bluster briefly lends the film a bitter 'Perry Mason' flavor. Other than that, 'Kramer vs. Kramer' is practically perfect.
Hoffman took home a well-deserved Oscar for a moving portrayal that's never maudlin. Though he enjoys marvelous moments with Streep, he's at his best relating to Henry, with whom he creates a beautiful chemistry that forms the movie's emotional core. Hoffman's work always rings true, and so does that of Henry, who gives much more than a typical cry-on-cue juvenile performance, rightfully earning his Best Supporting Actor nomination. The film also gave Streep her first Oscar, and she tackles an ambiguous role with aplomb. Though we want to despise Joanna for her all the pain she has caused, Streep won't let us. We may not agree with Joanna's perspective or approve of her actions, but Streep fleshes the character out, and shows how family crises scar everyone involved.
Though I can't remember exactly what 'Kramer vs. Kramer' looked like in a theater in 1979, Sony's 1080p transfer brought me back to that time and made me feel as if I was watching it on celluloid in my living room. No nicks or scratches mar the pristine print, but the cleansing process hasn't altered the film's grain structure one iota. Which is not to say the picture looks "grainy"; it doesn't. It looks like film. The transfer has texture, warmth, body, and celebrates everything we love about two-dimensional images. Naturally muted colors reflect the winter setting, but black levels are inky and dense, and contrast is properly tuned, lending the image nice depth. Close-ups don't possess the clarity of newer releases, but they provide excellent detail, and Streep's pale skintones and Hoffman's olive complexion always look natural. This terrific effort from Sony far outshines the previous standard-def DVD and shows just what Blu-ray is capable of doing for older films.
Intimate dialogue scenes don't provide many opportunities for the high-tech audio to shine, but the Dolby TrueHD 5.1 track still impresses. Most of the sound is anchored up front, but seamless pans provide natural stereo effects, and there's a bit of faint office noise in the rears that adds periodic atmosphere throughout the film. Best of all, the wonderfully textured classical guitar duets that largely comprise the film's score enjoy fine dynamic range and provide full-bodied surround sound.
The only extra is a well-done 2001 documentary ported over from the film's previous DVD release. "Finding the Truth: The Making of 'Kramer vs. Kramer'" focuses on the creative team's strong commitment to the project and the collaborative effort that brought it to the screen. Hoffman admits he was reluctant to do the film at first and opposed the casting of Henry because he was "too cute," while Streep speaks glowingly of Benton's generosity and willingness to receive input from the cast. Tastefully produced and filled with insight and anecdotes, this essential documentary adds a lot to the film.
It's high time for a fresh look at 'Kramer vs. Kramer,' and the release of this high quality Blu-ray disc provides a perfect excuse. This is not just a run-of-the-mill Best Picture winner, but a film for the ages – an enduring study of parental love, family dynamics, understanding, and forgiveness that plays just as well today as it did 30 years ago. The exceptional video transfer and fine audio seal the deal and make this disc, without question, one to own.