Color, 1971, 89m.
Directed by Barney Platts-Mills
Starring Susan Penhaligon, Bruce Robinson, Michael Feast, Robert Brown, George Fenton, Kathleen Byron
BFI (Blu-Ray & DVD) (UK HD/PAL R0) / WS (1.78:1) (16:9)

Dropout films were all the rage in the late '60s and early '70s as onscreen youths decided to chuck aside the confining rules of their elders and find their own paths in the world. (Heck, Tinto Brass even made a film called Drop Out riffing on the idea with Vanessa Redgrave, though few actually got to see it.) One of the more unusual and emotionally complex films to deal with the idea is the little-seen Private Road, a 1971 film from director Barney Platts-Mills (Bronco Bullfrog) with a truly surprising cast. Today it's especially fascinating as a rare starring vehicle for Bruce Robinson, a magnetic young actor who racked up supporting roles in Zeffirelli's Romeo & Juliet, The Devil's Widow, The Story of Adele H., and The Music Lovers before switching careers and becoming an Oscar-nominated screenwriter of The Killing Fields. Inspired by his wild experiences with late actor Vivien MacKerrell (star of Ghost Story), he wrote and directed the cult hit Withnail & I and went on to direct How to Get Ahead in Advertising and Jennifer 8. It's fascinating seeing him in his early years here carrying an entire film, and one can only wonder what might have happened if he'd decided to stay in front of the camera instead.

Enjoying the successful royalty checks from his first published novel, young writer Peter Morrissey (Robinson) decides to avoid the grind of a regular job and finds romance with the liberated, sexually voracious receptionist Ann (Penhaligon). They decide to go beyond the safe confines of Notting Hill and enjoy a trip to the Scottish countryside, but when she becomes pregnant and resorts to an unusual solution, Peter returns to the seeming shelter of his old flatmates who are rapidly declining into heroin use and destructive sexual relationships. Will the two crazy kids realize what's best for them before it's too late?

Though light on traditional plot, Private Road is a terrific snapshot of England in the early '70s ranging from a portrait of mod London (check out the cars and Robinson's jacket!) to a more classical section in the countryside that could've stepped out of Far from the Madding Crowd. The supporting cast is filled with unexpected faces including Ann's father (played by Robert Brown, better known as "M" in the James Bond films from Octopussy through Licence to Kill) and two of Peter's friends, junkie Stephen (played by busy actor Michael Feast, the "living statue" from The Draughtsman's Contract and a predatory music exec in Velvet Goldmine) and emotionally weak Henry (a rare onscreen role for composer George Fenton, who went on to score The Company of Wolves, Gandhi, and Groundhog Day, as well as this film -- his first).

Platts-Mills made Private Road available on DVD for some time as a private release for sale online, but the first mainstream version from the BFI is a spectacular HD presentation available in a package containing both the Blu-Ray and DVD. Image quality is stellar throughout with very intense colors (especially when the groovy fashions and wallpaper appear) while the landscape shots are razor sharp. The uncompressed mono audio sounds fine all around, while optional English subtitles are also offered.

Two other short films are included as well (in full frame HD on the Blu-Ray), and both are substantial and well worth the extra time. First up in 1967's "St. Christopher," an earlier 47-minute film by Platts-Mills about the treatment of the mentally handicapped among adults and children. It's a fine collection of character studies and features some striking black and white photography, but the real stunner out of this entire release is definitely "The Last Chapter." This 1974 half-hour short film is the only directorial work of David Tringham, who went on to become a prolific assistant director in Hollywood. Based on an unpublished short story by John Fowles (The Collector, The French Lieutenant's Woman), it takes place over the course of an eventful morning at an English country house where thriller writer Robert Murray (Denholm Elliott) is grappling with his latest potboiler. Enter an effusive teenage fan, Penny (Penhaligon again, who's still a busy TV actress), who flips his life upside down. It's a precise and perfectly acted vignette and would make a great companion piece to François Ozon's Swimming Pool. The package comes with an illustrated booklet containing liner notes by Kevin Jackson, a vintage Nigel Andrews review, bios for Robinson, Penhaligon, and Platts-Mills, and additional notes about the two shorts.