Alexander Larman has reviewed the Region 0 release of Withnail and I. The film is one of the truly great British films- can the Criterion DVD release live up to the expectations placed upon it?
There’s a good argument that ‘Withnail and I’ is the funniest British film of all time. Certainly, the dialogue is easily among the wittiest and most quotable ever written for a film. The only real competition that it has in terms of comic genius is ‘This is Spinal Tap’, but the latter’s emphasis on improvisation and mock-doc style makes it, for some, a less appealing film than Withnail. It also hasn’t ever really caught on as a film quoted in student unions across the land- chances are that, if you are a student, you will have the experience of hearing some fool yell ‘Bring us the finest wines available to humanity’ at some point.
The plot itself is very simple. Withnail (Richard E Grant) and ‘I’, or Marwood as he is called in the script, (Paul McGann), two unemployed actors at the end of the 1960s, live in squalor. With the assistance of Withnail’s homosexual Uncle Monty (Richard Griffiths), they manage to procure the loan of a cottage for a week’s holiday. Unsurprisingly, things do not go according to plan; farmers are menacing, Withnail is threatened with a dead fish, and Monty appears with designs on Marwood. But what Robinson’s (heavily autobiographical) film does is to take obvious situations, and to twist them into something quite unique. This is no Cheech and Chong-esque comedy about two stoners, but something far bleaker, yet far, far funnier. However, the ending is one of the most moving I’ve ever seen, as it really does show up the hopelessness of these people’s lives.
If that makes it sound miserable, it’s probably too heavy-handed. The film is, as already mentioned, possibly the funniest British film ever made, along with ‘Life of Brian’, and the performances are exceptional. Grant, in one of the finest parts ever written for a screen actor, is truly amazing in his debut film, and all the more impressive for being completely teetotal and a non-smoker, thus requiring him to simulate the many scenes of drunkenness and drug use in the film. McGann and Ralph Brown are also excellent as, respectively, Marwood and Danny the drug dealer, but the film is nearly stolen by Griffiths as Uncle Monty. While Robinson has been accused of writing a homophobic caricature, it’s hard to truly dislike Monty, even when he is attempting to force himself on Marwood with the immortal line ‘I mean to have you, even if it must be burglary!’ A wonderful film, and an essential part of any DVD collection.
Somewhat surprisingly for Criterion, this is a non-anamorphic transfer. While this may appear to be irritating and a sign of laziness on their part, the actual truth is that ‘Withnail and I’ is not the sort of film where the quality of the picture is essential to enjoy the film; it was filmed on a very low budget, and the rough style of shooting is always apparent. That said, this is a surprisingly good transfer. Detail levels are strong, flesh tones look natural, and colours seem clear and bright. There is obviously some slight dust marks on the print, and the lack of anamorphic enhancement does make the picture clarity slightly less good than it would be otherwise; that said, this is easily the best I’ve ever seen this film look, from VHS to repertory cinemas. Incidentally, the possible reason for the non-anamorphic transfer is that Bruce Robinson refused to co-operate with Criterion, on the grounds that they wouldn’t pay him. Therefore, there was no pressing need on their part to get a new, director-approved transfer.
This is a statement from Criterion explaining why the DVD was non-anamorphic.
“The Criterion Collection uses anamorphic transfers for our DVDs whenever possible. Occasionally, despite our best efforts, we are unable to gain access to materials to make a 16:9 version. WITHNAIL AND I is, unfortunately, one of those situations. We regret any inconvenience this may cause”
Any film with a mono soundtrack is easy to rate, as it has to live up to one criterion (sic): is it audible? The answer is yes, with dialogue sounding clear and relatively crisp. It’s also possible to enjoy the selection of 60s songs far better than it was on video, given the much clearer quality of the sound now. Of course, this isn’t a film that calls for use of the rear speakers and subwoofer, and it’s not very surprising that there isn’t any. My only complaint was that the sound did occasionally sound slightly tinny, but this did not last, and was probably due to a flaw in the original sound recording rather than anything else.
There was some minor controversy about these; it was unknown whether the documentary ‘Withnail and us’ would be included on the disc, with at least one US review site failing to list it. However, I can confirm that it is indeed on the disc, and it is excellent. Although relatively short at 25 minutes, it manages to cover virtually every base, touching on the film’s origins as Robinson’s youth, the troubled production and the cult following that the film has today. It’s one of the most enjoyable documentaries I’ve seen on a DVD, because it wasn’t made as a promotional one (it was actually first shown on channel 4 for their Withnail night in 1999), but as one for a mass market. Therefore, it is rather less stuffy and ‘difficult’ than many similar releases. It’s slightly too short to be definitive, but it’s still highly entertaining.
Other features are more limited. There are some funny pre-production photographs by Ralph Steadman, the man responsible for most of the artwork on the film’s posters etc (a replica of one of which is included here), and who also designed the DVD’s menus, in a nice touch. There’s also an America film trailer, which attempts to make the film look slightly more conventional and ‘jolly’ than it actually is. No commentary is provided, unsurprisingly, but it would have been nice to have seen a couple of the film’s deleted scenes that are listed in the script.
‘Withnail and I’ is very possibly my favourite film of all time. I have lost count of how many times I have seen it, and it’s one of the very few films that actually grows funnier with repeated viewings. Criterion provides a good, if not great, disc here, which is still the best way to watch this wonderful film, and is therefore highly recommended. But, whatever you do, don’t go on holiday by mistake…
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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