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Withnail and I
Director: Bruce Robinson
Screenplay: Bruce Robinson
Stars: Richard E. Grant (Withnail), Paul McGann (Peter Marwood, "I"), Richard Griffiths (Monty), Ralph Brown (Danny), Michael Elphick (Jake)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1986
Country: UK
Withnail and I DVD Cover

Bruce Robinson's Withnail and I is a doped-out comedy spun from autobiographical threads about two unemployed actors trying to make the best of times in London in late 1969. It features a bizarre cast of characters, has no real plot, and is shot in the rather dull, straightforward style of a first-time director trying to find his feet. Yet, it is a wonderfully written bit, more literary than cinematic, and the movie chugs forward on the sheer strength of its dialogue and performers.

For this reason, it has garnered something of a cult following, especially in England, since its theatrical release 15 years ago. Like The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), This is Spinal Tap (1984), and other movies with cult followings, Withnail and I is endlessly quotable, offering line after line of dialogue whose most important characteristic is that it gets funnier each time you hear it. On first viewing, Withnail and I is a shaggy, sometime ponderous movie about two very dislikable characters. But, each subsequent viewing unveils something you missed the first time around, usually in the dialogue. A throwaway line here, a pitch in the voice there, a reply that didn't quite make sense the first time around. This, I think, is why so many people watch this movie over and over and over again: It keeps getting better.

The two main character are Withnail (Richard E. Grant) and Peter Marwood (Paul McGann), the "I" of the title. When the film opens, Withnail and Marwood are living in the filthy squalor of their flat in London, unemployed (probably, at least in Withnail's case, unemployable), drowning themselves in booze and drugs and self-pity. These early scenes establish the two characters, portraying Marwood as a somewhat quiet and reserved young man who has, nonetheless, been drawn into Withnail's orbit. Withnail, who was based on a friend of writer/director Bruce Robinson's, is an utterly self-absorbed character whose own inflated view of himself radiates outward and tends to make him seem grander than he actually is. Withnail is a poser, full of hot air, lies, and complaints, yet there is something intensely attractive about him.

Desperate to escape the tedium of their lives in London, Withnail and Marwood decide to go to the country on holiday, using a cottage owned by Withnail's eccentric (read: very weird) and wealthy Uncle Monty (Richard Griffiths). We are introduced to Monty in a positively hilarious scene in which Withnail and Marwood attempt to pass themselves off as successful actors in Monty's lavish drawing room while Monty, absurdly overweight and pompous, rambles on and on about the difference between carrots and flowers, which we eventually realize are bizarre metaphors for his barely suppressed homosexuality. About geraniums, he says, "Flowers are essentially tarts, prostitutes for the bees," while he goes on about how there is "something very special about a firm, young carrot."

Withnail and Marwood eventually make it out to Monty's summer cottage, finding it not everything they had hoped. In other words, it's a little more rustic than they had expected and, not having any money, they are strapped to find firewood and food. They are also forced to deal, at various times, with inclement weather, a horny bull, and locals who don't take kindly to urban types on holiday.

Nothing, though, prepares them for the unexpected arrival of Monty, who decides to surprise them by spending the weekend at the cottage. Withnail is happy because Monty brings plenty of food and fine wine to keep him full and inebriated. Marwood is not so pleased because it comes at his expense, as it becomes patently clear that Monty has set his sights on Marwood and proceeds to pursue him in an increasingly aggressive fashion. Monty's pompous stories and musings become more and more explicit in their sexual orientation, which makes Marwood more and more nervous. Withnail, self-absorbed as always, couldn't care less as long he is well-fed and drunk.

Essentially, the movie doesn't offer much more than this plot-wise, but that's not Robinson's point. In Withnail and I, Robinson is trying to evoke a feeling based on his own memories of being an aimless young man in the late 1960s with grand dreams and seemingly no place to go. What little plot exists is merely there to act as a framework on which Robinson can create the sensation of Withnail and Marwood's lives. The movie is, in many ways, a character study, and the end makes clear that it is eventually Marwood who will move on in life, while Withnail will be forever trapped in his own cocoon of self-importance.

Withnail and I is frequently hilarious in the way that real life is hilarious--in stops and starts. Some of the funniest lines come from a nonsensical, long-haired drug dealer named Danny (Ralph Brown), who seems to exist in the movie for no other reason than to show that there are people like Danny in the world, the kind of people who talk a lot but never really say anything. But, that's the kind of movie this is, interested less in the mechanics of narrative and more in the idiosyncrasies of that thing we call life. Shot on a low budget with a cast of then mostly unknown actors, Withnail and I is a triumph of personal vision, a movie that was conceived and executed in a very particular way without any compromise. I suspect that those who do not appreciate it, especially after several viewings, will simply never get it.

Withnail and I: Criterion Collection DVD

Aspect Ratio1.85:1
AnamorphicNo
Audio Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural
LanguagesEnglish
SubtitlesEnglish
Supplements Withnail and Us 1999 retrospective documentary
Rare preproduction photographs by Ralph Steadman
Original theatrical trailer
Limited edition collectible poster of the original film art
DistributorThe Criterion Collection / Home Vision
SRP$29.95

VIDEO
Withnail and I is presented in a widescreen (1.85:1) transfer taken from the 35mm interpositive and supervised by cinematographer Peter Hannan. Unfortunately, it is not anamorphic, as it is the same transfer used for the 1997 Criterion laser disc. Apparently, Criterion was unable to get access to the elements to make a new transfer. Overall, though, the transfer is quite good, although it may not look that way because Withnail and I is an incredibly dark film, shot in murky, often dirty interiors lit by candlelight, while most outdoor sequences were either shot on cloudy days on in the rain. Thus, the transfer looks dark, but that was the intended look of the film. However, the lack of 16x9 enhancement is apparent in the slight softness of the image, which doesn't have the crispness and fine detail of a solid anamorphic transfer.

AUDIO
The monaural soundtrack, transferred from the original magnetic tracks in Dolby Digital 1.0, sounds solid throughout. Americans might have to use the optional subtitles from time to time to understand the heavy English dialect used by some characters (especially when the characters are drunk and slur their words), but, for the most part, the dialogue is clear and understandable. The soundtrack is very clean, and the inclusion of a few songs by Jimi Hendrix (including "All Along the Watchtower" and "Voodoo Child") gives the soundtrack some punch.

SUPPLEMENTS
Unlike the supplement-free 1997 Criterion laser disc, this DVD comes with a few engaging extras. The most important is the inclusion of Withnail and Us, a 1999 retrospective documentary made by England's Channel Four. Running about 20 minutes in length and presented in nonanamorphic widescreen, it features recent interviews with writer/director Bruce Robinson, two of his old flatmates from the 1960s, and stars Richard E. Grant, Paul McGann, and Ralph Brown, as well as several college-age fans of the film who can quote lines of dialogue by heart. The documentary is interesting as a 15-year retrospective of a cult classic, and it is further enhanced by the inclusion of rare photographs and home movies shot by Robinson when he was in drama school in London in the mid-1960s, which illustrate just how much of Withnail and I was derived from real life.

Also included on the disc are 20 black-and-white photographs of Grant and McGann taken by artist Ralph Steadman during preproduction rehearsals, as well as the original theatrical trailer in nonanamorphic widescreen. Like Criterion's release of The Blob, Withnail and I also includes a limited edition 20" x 14 1/2" poster, this one of Steadman's original film art, which is featured on the front of the DVD case, as well.

Overall Rating: (3.5)




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