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PBS Home Video presents
A Death in the Family (2002)

"It's not a thing that can be prepared for. It just has to be lived through." 
- Aunt Hannah (Kathleen Chalfant)

Review By: Jon Danziger   
Published: June 16, 2005

Stars: Annabeth Gish, John Slattery, Austin Wolff, James Cromwell, Kathleen Chalfant
Director: Gil Cates

MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 01h:26m:05s
Release Date: June 07, 2005
UPC: 841887050470
Genre: drama

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
B- B-CB- D-

DVD Review

James Agee's output was relatively sparse, so there probably isn't room for him on the short list of great American writers; still, his contributions to the world of film were considerable, including his smart film criticism, and especially his screenplays for The African Queen and The Night of the Hunter. (Especially exquisite, too, is his book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, accompanied by Walker Evans' beautiful photos of those hit hardest by the Great Depression.) His autobiographical novel was adapted for PBS in 2002; it's a memory piece, and full of understated mournfulness, but in truth it's not a wholly realized drama, for Agee and his adapters are always awfully polite with some very raw material.

The story takes place in Knoxville, in 1915, a world in which every lawn glistens with the morning dew, and in which every garment is perfectly scrubbed and pressed. We see the story more or less through the eyes of seven-year-old Rufus (which was Agee's middle name), the son of Jay and Mary; she's the daughter of one of the richest families in town, while he has shed his hardscrabble upbringing to become a man of society. They're a perfect little family, and we learn that another baby is on the way; of course, we know, given the title of this movie, that that happiness cannot last. It gives the first portion of the film a persistent foreboding—not much happens, really, and so we anticipate any slight event as the harbinger of tragedy.

It comes with a phone call from Jay's drunkard undertaker of a brother, who insists that their father is dying, and that Jay must come immediately. He makes the journey—a false alarm, for the old man is as spry as ever—but doesn't return, the victim of a quick and awful automobile accident. The rest of the film is devoted to the family going through the rituals of mourning, with a little too much screen time given over to the politics of the Catholic Church. (Mary and her family are Catholics; Jay was never baptized in the Church, and hence the officious priest will not give Jay a full Roman Catholic funeral.)

The actors are generally very good, though the material is so muted as to be almost crippling. As Mary, Annabeth Gish is specific without being maudlin; she's not given a lot of colors to show. John Slattery is stolid as Jay, though it's sort of a thankless role; especially fine are Kathleen Chalfant, as Mary's spinster aunt Hannah, living vicariously through her niece, and James Cromwell as the patriarch. But it's all so polite, and not above obvious and trite symbolism—for instance, the clock on the family mantle stops with the news of Jay's death—that you can almost hear the junior high school term papers being written about this one. Austin Wolff does his best as little Rufus, and a good amount of time is devoted to him getting razzed by the other kids in the neighborhood; but our identification with the character is probably more profound on the page, which really may be the best medium for this story.

Rating for Style: B-
Rating for Substance: B-


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: There's a good amount of scratching on the source print; also, no shortage of threads and other artifacts seem to have been introduced in the transfer.

Image Transfer Grade: C


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishno

Audio Transfer Review: The audio is passable, with the dialogue audible, the dynamics limited.

Audio Transfer Grade: B-


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 17 cues and remote access
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extras Review: The only extra here is a list of a couple of PBS URLs; also, in the chapter listings, the word "pickles" is misspelled.

Extras Grade: D-


Final Comments

An overly polite adaptation of a muted autobiographical novel. This is made professionally, but it's lacking in passion and depth of feeling.


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