Colin Polonowski has reviewed the Region 2 release of Withnail and I. Bruce Robinson’s autobiographical film is one of the funniest of the 1980’s and Anchor Bay’s disc beats even the mighty Criterion thanks to the inclusion of a commentary.
The number of genuinely funny films with significant rewatch value is very limited. There are plenty of films out there that are laugh out loud funny on first watching, but a lot of the time these depend on gags and sketches that just don’t stand up to repeat watching. Other films can be watched dozens of times and get funnier with every viewing – This is Spinal Tap, Life of Brian and Monty Python and the Holy Grail being those that really stand out. Well you can also add the sublime Withnail and I to that list.
On first watching Bruce Robinson’s semi-auto-biographical film earlier this year, I was struck at first by what appeared to be a unbelievably over-the-top performance of Richard E Grant as Withnail and the somewhat muted appearance of Paul McGann as Marlow (or the ‘I’ of the title), however half an hour in and it suddenly hits you – both performances are absolutely spot on. As are those of Ralph Brown, Richard Griffiths and Michael Elphick – the casting for the film was nigh on perfect.
Withnail and ‘I’ are aspiring actors sharing a small, rundown flat in Camden Town. After discovering the ecosystem developing in their sink they realise just how desperate and pointless their lives are becoming with everything revolving around where they’re going to get their next drink – Withnail even resorts to drinking lighter fluid with devastating consequences and if he could get his hands on it he’d be drinking antifreeze too. They decide to take a holiday in the country house owned by Withnail’s gay uncle Monty (Richard Griffiths).
Their holiday develops into something more than just a break away – they come face to face with an angry bull, Withnail devises a new and interesting way of fishing and Monty turns up with plans to have his wicked way with Marlow. The characters are very much caricatures, although they’re largely based on people Robinson either knew or lived with so surprising as it may seem they do have a grounding in reality.
Withnail and I is an outstanding piece of British filmmaking. As with many British comedies, the quotable lines come thick and fast – and many are instantly relatable to the viewer. The depths to which Withnail sinks may seem very deep, but there are very few people who haven’t felt the same way at some time in their lives. It’s a very dark film about people whose lives are not working out well, but at the same time it’s about as funny as anything I’ve ever seen and has seen the inner-workings of my DVD player more times than most of the other discs I’ve bought in the last six months.
Anchor Bay had their work cut out for them in bettering the Criterion version recently released in the US. The main drawback of that disc was the non-anamorphic transfer and unfortunately that hasn’t really been improved upon here for the same reasons – the materials are just not obtainable to produce anything more than the letterbox transfer on show here.
The picture, accepting its non-anamorphicity and considering the limitations we need to take into account, isn’t particularly bad. It’s well defined if a little soft and the colours are obviously very muted. The print is obviously a little worn but there’s very little in the way of damage. Given what was available this is the best we can realistically expect until such time that the materials are available to do a better job.
Mark one up against the Criterion disc here! The UK disc not only features a stereo soundtrack, but also a new Dolby Digital 5.1 remix. Both are equally as valid – the stereo track is as good as it can possibly be – it’s nice and clear and sounds good throughout the various sixties rock tracks employed through the film.
For those with a 5.1 capable system, we basically have a pretty good improvement over the mono soundtrack. The front soundstage has been opened up slightly with limited use of the rear channels to provide a little in the way of ambience. It’s good and satisfies both the techy hardcore and purists.
Strike two! The UK disc takes the Criterion extras and manages to improve upon them with the addition of a commentary by Paul McGann and Ralph Brown. I’ll come back to this in a minute – let’s look quickly at the extras common to both releases…
The cream of the crop has to be the ‘Withnail and Us’ documentary which is basically a retrospective look back at the film by the principle cast, Bruce Robinson and a couple of the people on whom the characters were based. There are contributions by McGann, Grant and Brown so we get to hear about the film from an actor’s viewpoint. Richard E Grant’s pieces are particularly interesting as this was his debut film. It’s a little short but still manages to cram a lot into the short running time. It’s presented in anamorphic widescreen and the clips from the film show just how bad it could have looked had they used the material to hand to butcher together an anamorphic transfer.
The trailer is a step above most others with just enough to get you interested without actually giving you a good idea what the film is about – a few very memorable lines and scenes make an appearance. The pre-production photos by Ralph Steadman that do raise a smile and we also get a poster designed by him included in the package.
Now back onto the commentary which features McGann (I) and Brown (Danny). It’s not a laugh-fest, but it’s still quite insightful – seeing as technically it’s not a particularly taxing film we don’t really miss anything by not having anyone on the crew present. Both McGann and Brown are more than capable of keeping the listener interested with very few silences breaking up the banter. They bounce things off each other nicely and keep the conversation flowing. We get some interesting insights into Marlow from McGann which itself makes the commentary worth a listen.
One of the funniest films to have come out of Britain in the Eighties – and probably the funniest to appear since Life of Brian hit the cinemas back in 1979. The immense rewatch value makes the disc a worthwhile purchase in itself, and the addition of the commentary track makes this disc an attractive proposition even to owners of the Criterion disc.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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