Withnail & I Review
Withnail & I, written and directed by Bruce Robinson and released in 1987, is the tale of two struggling actors, living in a shambles of an apartment, in a rundown area of London, at the arse-end of the sixties. Work is hard to come by. Drink and drugs less so. Driven to despair by the biting cold, the menace of all-day drinkers and a rotten kitchen, they decide that a few days away in the country is what is needed to perk up their spirits. A quick visit to Uncle Monty procures not only a discourse on the suggestive nature of vegetables, but also the key to a cottage in Penrith and the two head to the Lake District in search of clean air and fine wines.
Richard E. Grant plays Withnail, the permanently pickled, sarcastically charged foil to Paul McGann’s more considered Marwood (the ‘I’ of the title). Both actors are fantastic in their respective roles and having watched the film many, many times over the last 27 years, it’s hard to imagine anyone else filling out the characters in quite such an accomplished and fitting manner. The same goes for the rest of the uniformly excellent cast and each role, however small, is played to perfection. Bruce Robinson’s script is also the reason the film works so well, with almost every line offering something to smile about. The dry, witty dialogue between Withnail and Marwood sounds very natural coming out of the character’s mouths, yet when considered in isolation, much of it sounds flat or plain daft. The beauty of the writing is that it blends so well with the individual characters and creates memorable scene after memorable scene. Shout out any one of the film's classic lines to a fan and they’ll laugh out loud and shout you back another; try one of the film's lines on someone who hasn’t seen it and you’ll be greeted by a blank face. The humour in Withnail & I is not derived from jokes (in fact Bruce Robinson admits to worrying that the film wasn’t working if he saw the crew laughing at what they were filming) but is tied to the characters and situations in such a way that as you’re watching, it feels very much like the unique, one-off it has become.
To go into much more detail about the wondrous nature of Withnail & I seems a fairly pointless exercise. If you’ve got this far you’re either a devotee, know all about the film and just want to know how this latest release shapes up, or you’re new to the film and deserve to not have the its many delights spoiled by my clumsy fawning. Suffice to say, after 27 years, it’s still an absolute cracker.
Arrow Video have made this latest home release of Withnail & I available as a personalised deluxe box set, limited to 1000 copies (and now sold out) and as an unpersonalised set, limited to 2000 copies. Both box sets contain the same material, although the smaller run set allowed buyers to have the box adorned with their choice from one of four covers, plus a line from the film and their name.
The main attraction is obviously a Blu-ray featuring a new 2K restoration from the original camera negative, supervised and approved by director of photography Peter Hannan. This looks incredible compared to the previous DVD and Blu-ray releases the film has had and features a clean, sharp, bright image that really brings the film to life. Despite this overhaul, there’s still a lovely layer of grain present in the low light or interior scenes and the drab exteriors of London or The Lakes still seem as grim as ever. This new transfer has clearly been sympathetically handled and Arrow deserve credit for handling the balance between a clean print and a film-like image so well. Sound is provided by the original mono track, which has also had a clean up to remove pops, clicks and buzzing and in this uncompressed form is clear, detailed and nicely balanced. English subtitles are also available.
Two audio commentaries are provided. The first, from 2006, features Bruce Robinson in conversation with Blue Underground’s Carl Daft. Robinson is open and honest about his experiences of making the film and Daft keeps him nicely prompted and on-track all the way through. Although you get the feeling that he’s perhaps a little tired of talking about it, by the end Robinson admits to having enjoyed this viewing of the film very much. The second commentary is newly recorded and comes from critic and writer Kevin Jackson, author of the BFI Modern Classic guide to the film. This is a different prospect altogether. Jackson is simply a huge fan of the film and clearly derives as much pleasure from it now, as he did when he first saw it. He apologises for having to talk over the film, points out a few geeky facts as we go along, doesn’t get bogged-down with too much highbrow critical appraisal and laughs heartily the whole way through. It’s a very easy-going and inclusive chat track and I enjoyed it immensely.
Withnail & Us is a 25 minute retrospective look at the film, which aired on Channel Four in 1999. All the principal cast and crew are interviewed and opinion is also sought from a few celebrity fans. The Peculiar Memories of Bruce Robinson is a 39 minute documentary which looks at the director’s career before, during and after Withnail & I. Although a very talented writer/director, this look at his creative process also shows Robinson to be a dry old sod who clearly has no time for anyone that doesn’t see the world through his own red wine and cigarette smoke filled eyes and this seems to have ruined many a film-making relationship for him. Next up we have a brief 6 minute look at some students playing the Withnail & I drinking game, followed by an even briefer 4 minute chat with a number of fans who are about to watch the film projected on a big screen on Brighton Beach. Peep Show writer Sam Bain offers his appreciation of the film in an 8 minute piece and highlights some of the influence it has had on his show. Finally, Production Designer Michael Pickwoad talks about his involvement with the location scouting and design and over the course of a 21 minute interview, it’s clear that even after all this time, he is still very proud of the work and the film. The disc is rounded off by a rather soft-looking theatrical trailer.
The second Blu-ray disc contains a copy of Bruce Robinson’s 1988 follow-up feature, How to Get Ahead in Advertising, newly transferred from original film elements and again, approved by director of photography Peter Hannan. Richard E. Grant plays Denis Dimbleby Bagley, a successful advertising executive, struggling to come up with a new campaign for an acne cream. The stress of meeting the client’s deadline manifests itself in the shape of a boil which forms on his neck and as the pressures from his boss, wife, friends and, most importantly, the world of advertising grow, so the boil grows, eventually developing a face and speaking to Bagley. Apparently becoming more delusional by the day, Bagley is treated by a doctor and psychiatrist and agrees to have the boil surgically removed, returning from hospital a changed man.
Although ostensibly a broad comedy about one man’s delusions, How To Get Ahead In Advertising also gives Bruce Robinson a chance to moan about all the things that he hates about the late eighties consumerist lifestyle many people were leading at the time. It’s a patchy film, very funny one minute, tiresome the next and hasn’t aged well. Its satirical targets are very much of the time and the dilemmas, difficulties and stresses faced by all are difficult to relate to. Wealthy advertising executives and their associated lifestyles are not things that most people can readily identify with and as hard as Robinson tries to attack this world, he does so with a fairly dull knife, and it's difficult at times to not see the trappings that come with the acquisition of money and power as something almost aspirational. It’s not an unenjoyable film, but the connection that most viewers will have felt with the struggles of Marwood and Withnail is just not there with Denis Dimbleby Bagley and therefore How To Get Ahead In Advertising fails to absorb in quite the same way.
Transfer-wise, the picture is clean and bright. It’s taken from an interpositive rather than the original camera negative, but despite appearing a shade softer than Withnail & I, it still looks very good. Sound is uncompressed stereo and is perfectly acceptable without being a revelation and English subtitles are provided. The only extras are another ten minute reminiscence with production designer Michael Pickwoad and a theatrical trailer that looks like it came from a videotape.
A 200 page hardback book, containing a lengthy introduction by Bruce Robinson, contemporary reviews of each film from the time of its release, new writings on the director, main cast and the films themselves, scenes from the original Withnail & I script that didn't make it to the screen, along with some delightful behind the scenes photographs, is also included and makes a great accompaniment to both films. These detailed books that Arrow are willing to go the extra mile to produce (the volume included in their The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2 set being another fine example) really round off a collector's edition perfectly and are a very welcome addition. DVD copies of both films (which weren't available for review) make up the rest of this four-disc set.
In summary then, Withnail & I looks better on this release than it ever has before. The accompanying extras are informative and enjoyable (although between two commentaries and two documentaries, there’s a fair bit of overlap) and the inclusion of Bruce Robinson’s follow-up film is a nice touch. My only reservation is with the packaging and inevitably the price. Although undoubtedly one for collectors, a price of £40 or more for a Blu-ray of Withnail & I is beyond me and I’d imagine a good many of the film’s fans. As thorough an examination of the film as this set is, I can’t help feeling that Arrow Video have missed a trick with this release. The continual VHS, DVD and BR editions that have appeared over the last 15 years show that there is a solid fan base for this movie, which I’m sure runs to more than 3000 people and I can only hope that a solo, normal priced edition surfaces in the future. That said, this edition is what we have for now and Arrow should be congratulated for taking the time to not only provide the film in the best shape it’s been in for years, but for also wrapping it up in a comprehensive collection of supplementary material. It may be a deluxe edition too far for some, but it’s a fabulous package for those who can find it within their reach.
10 out of 10
10 out of 10
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10 out of 10