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   WITHNAIL & I

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Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Paul McGann, Richard E. Grant, Richard Griffiths, Ralph Brown, Michael Elphick
Director:  Bruce Robinson
Audio:  Dolby Digital Mono
Video:  Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio:  Criterion
Features:  See Review
Length:  108 Minutes
Release Date:  July 10, 2001

“Free to those that can afford it, very expensive to those who can’t.”

Film ***

Withnail & I is the first film from writer/director Bruce Robinson, and it has become something of a cult favorite, especially in his native England.  British fans quote lines from it religiously the way American fans do The Breakfast Club.   The film had something to say about growing up in a particular time and place, and left its mark on many because of it.

Being the wrong nationality and of the wrong era, I must confess, I didn’t get the charms of Withnail at first.   But before writing a less than favorable review, I waited a few hours and gave the film some thought.  The more I thought, the more I was surprised to realize how much of the picture had stayed with me, and more so, how two characters I thought I didn’t like had won me over more than I realized.

Those characters are Withnail (Grant) and “I”, or Marwood (McGann), two out of work actors living in horrid conditions in London as the 1960s are drawing to an end.  Marwood narrates, and seems like a sheep being led to Withnail’s slaughter throughout the movie.  Both are poor, hungry, and have appetites for drugs, booze and self destruction, but Withnail elevates it almost to an art form.  He is self-absorbed, manic, and seemingly ready to snap.  He even drinks lighter fluid to curb his need for alcohol, then goes looking for antifreeze.   “You shouldn’t mix your drinks,” Marwood warns.

The two friends take advantage of a holiday opportunity, when Withnail’s gay uncle Monty (Griffiths) gives them leave to stay at his vacation house in the country.  But it turns out to be much more than the men bargained for, as the old cabin is almost in as bad a state as their flat back home, and they have no means or abilities of getting food or water for themselves!

Things grow more complicated when Uncle Monty himself shows up, and begins to take an obvious liking to Marwood.  The ever scheming Withnail actually prostitutes his traveling companion to his uncle without Marwood’s knowledge so he can stay at the cabin longer!  The scenes that follow are funny…maximum squirm factor.

Eventually, the two return home and say their goodbyes as Marwood gets offered a choice acting role.  Their final scene is touching, but not quite as extreme as writer/director Robinson’s original idea for an ending:  Withnail’s suicide!

As I said, the first time through, I didn’t quite get into the spirit of the film, which at first glance, seems to be a single-toned, meandering dervish with nothing much to say.  The characters were a little extreme and crudely drawn, and spending two hours with them was like hanging around with a couple of frat guys coming off their weekend binges.

But the more I thought about it, the more I came to accept that the film does have pertinent things to say about love, friendship, and transition.  Even in altered states of consciousness, change marches on, and you either march with it or get stepped over.

The lead actors are both quite good, but special mention must go to Richard E. Grant as the fractured and egotistical Withnail.   His manic performance is really fascinating to watch…and it should be noted that Grant, the actor, is a teetotaler in real life, so his drunken antics are all the more testament to his skills as an actor.

Bruce Robinson’s film is said to be partly autobiographical, and like the best life stories, it seems to document more than its characters…it almost unknowingly stumbles upon some profound truths as the political, artistic and moral climate was about to change from the 60s to the 70s.   That is why I think the film means so much to so many, even fifteen years after its release.

Video ***

Lack of anamorphic enhancement aside, Criterion offers a commendable job for a film from the most troublesome decade for transfers, the 80s.  Colors are generally very good and natural looking, and sharpness and image detail is quite strong throughout, though one or two darker scenes suffer from less definition.  I noticed no grain or compression evidence, and only very occasional instances of visible print wear in the form of some spots or scratches.  The transfer was supervised by director of photography Peter Hannan.  Overall, fans should be pleased with this offering, though they deserved anamorphic enhancement.

Audio ***

I was very pleased with this simple mono mix, which boasted better dynamic range than most, as well as good clean dialogue and music.  There are even touches of ambient effects like distant thunder or rain that work surprisingly well without the use of surrounds…all in all, a nice effort.

Features ***

I really enjoyed the “Withnail & Us” documentary, more than most featurettes being offered today.  It features interviews with Robinson, Grant, McGann and more, including fans who have clung to the movie like Biblical truth…a very enjoyable presentation.  There is also the original trailer, some rare pre-production photographs, and a limited edition poster of the original film art.

Summary:

Friends can pick you up, put you down, tickle your funny bone or drive you mad…that’s what makes them special.   Withnail and I is a modern, contemporary classic about the misadventures of two such friends as the world around them changes.  It’s a cult favorite that may or may not please everyone, but merits at least a look.