Review by Ed Nguyen
Stars: Bill Paterson, Lindsay Duncan, Jamal Shah, Talat Hussain, Tilo Pruckner, Julia Ormond
Director: Alastair Reid
Audio: Dolby Stereo 2.0
Video: full-frame, non-anamorphic
Studio: Acorn Media
Features: Filmography, Traffic-Traffik comparison, short featurette
Length: 325 minutes
Release Date: June 26, 2001
"Chemists today can make small molecular changes in any drug which put it beyond the definition of any prohibitive laws."
Television movies have a well-deserved reputation for being laughably bad and instantly forgettable. This same principle generally applies to miniseries as well, the only difference being that miniseries take longer to establish how bad they are. Yet once in a blue moon, a truly extraordinary television production does appear. The late 1980's saw three genuine masterpieces in the category of television miniseries. The first was Krzysztof Kieslowski's Decalogue, a mesmerizing collection of ten episodes loosely based upon the ten commandments. The second was the American miniseries, Lonesome Dove, hailed as one of the greatest westerns ever filmed. The third was the British Channel 4 production, Traffik, an overwhelmingly powerful portrayal of the effects of the Pakistani heroin trade upon individuals, both in Britain and in Pakistan.
Traffik is neither casual nor mindless entertainment. It is, for the most part, a deadly serious examination of a very real human crisis. Despite the subject matter, the film is never condescending, nor does it ever seek to lecture to us. Nonetheless, the film is raw and unflinchingly honest; it lays bare the personal dilemmas which drag both the innocent and the guilty into the drug trade. It sees the story through the eyes of realistic individuals, not generic stereotypes, caught in the ripples. There are no witty comebacks, no action sequences, no happily-ever-afters. What little humor exists centers mostly upon the camaraderie between two police investigators (my favorite humorous moment being a cute allusion to the film The French Connection). Ultimately though, the film paints a somber portrait but not one without hope.
Traffik is divided into six episodes. These episodes follow three main story lines. The first deals with a British Minister who has the responsibility of addressing the issue of heroin trade between Pakistan and Britain; his situation is further complicated by the fact that his daughter is slowly becoming a heroin addict herself. The second plot line concerns a German businessman who has been identified by two police investigators as a major drug smuggler and has been placed on trial; in the meantime, his innocent wife struggles to handle the serious financial problems that arise from the interruption in her husband's heroin route. The third plot line involves a former Pakistani poppy farmer who, unable to support his family, seeks employment under a powerful regional drug dealer; his close ties to the drug trade inevitably lead to terrible repercussions for himself and his family.
American film-goers will be immediately familiar with some of these stories, thanks to the recent remake by Steven Soderbergh (Traffic). The two films share many plot similarities, and both films are superbly acted. Yet while Traffic is certainly an exceptional theatrical film, it pales in comparison to the original British production. The reason is simple - the British miniseries has more time to fully characterize the complex relationships between the many intertwining stories. We understand the motivations for characters' actions more clearly; this is particularly true in the plotline involving the smuggler's wife. We are able to empathize more with the characters, both innocent and guilty. We become more emotionally invested in the stories and their eventual outcomes.
Traffik's length is a daunting 325 minutes, although the film never feels long. Despite the sheer epic scope of its story arc, the film's direction is never muddled in details. It is always clear and extremely confident, and the drama of the narration is so compelling that those minutes will fly quickly by, leaving the viewer wishing for more. Key moments are wisely constructed around the episodic nature of the film structure so that each episode, perfectly accompanied by haunting Khostakovich theme music, concludes upon a note of such emotional impact that the effect is utterly devastating. Precious few films nowadays can match this. Never mind that Traffik is a great film about the drug trade, it is simply a great film.
Alas, here is where Traffik crashes and burns.
The transfer is not very good. Images that may have been perfectly acceptable for television broadcast are here distressingly grainy. This poor video quality is further aggravated by Acorn Media's decision to shoehorn a nearly six-hour miniseries onto two DVDs. One might argue that the grainy quality somehow enhances the film's realistic and gritty nature. Realistically, this transfer just looks like a lazy straight-from-videotape job more so than any actual intent by the filmmakers.
How poor is the image quality? Well, I've seen silent films with better DVD transfers. I've seen VHS films which look better. I own VCR recordings made from broadcast television (you know, with the rabbit-ear antennae) that look better! Darkened images in dimly-lit scenes have poor definition. There is bleeding of colors, most noticeably during title or end sequences but always to a small degree throughout the film. The images have a washed-out appearance, though to be fair, it is not clear whether this was a filmmaking decision or the fault of the transfer. It is probably a combination of both.
The DVDs are still watchable but only begrudgingly so. The video images provided herein offer no advantages over simply viewing this title on VHS tape, instead.
Argh. The audio is no improvement over the video presentation. While I understand that the filmmakers may have wanted to achieve a degree of realism here, I do not believe that they intended as poor a soundtrack as appears on this DVD set. Dialogue is alternately drowned out by background or just muffled. Sometimes, it has a strange tin-can quality to it or simply seems to float in the air, having originated from nowhere. On rare occasions, the dialogue isn't even synchronized with the lip motions (was some of it dubbed?).
The audio here begs for the inclusion of subtitles. Some English subtitles do appear intermittently but they are part of the video presentation and not controllable by remote. Forget about close-captioning; that is not present, either. To be frank, given the substandard sound engineering for the DVD, Acorn Media should have provided subtitles for every bit of dialogue (English or not) in the film. They did not.
The film's length does not allow the inclusion of extensive extras on the DVDs, but that is reasonable. There is a small filmography section and a few pages describing the process of remaking this film into a Hollywood production. The best extra, however, is a 13-minute featurette that offers an enlightening discussion with the film's creators about the formulative process for the film. Ironically, the transfer for this nice featurette is quite nice, which only serves to emphasize how poorly the actual film appears in this DVD set.
This DVD set is a truly mixed bag. Traffik is immensely gripping and extraordinarily well-crafted. It is undoubtedly superior to Soderbergh's award-winning Hollywood remake. I cannot begin to recommend this British film strongly enough! On the other hand, the DVD engineering by Acorn Media, to be exceedingly polite, could have been a tad bit better.