Withnail and I on Blu-ray
by Jef Burnham
Available on Blu-ray August 24, 2010 from Image Entertainment.
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In the late-1970s, George Harrison (yes, the Beatle) co-founded HandMade Films in order to help his pals, the Monty Python troupe, complete their picture Life of Brian when their original funding fell through. Harrison’s company would subsequently produce some of the most iconic films to come out of the UK in the 1980s. Now, Image Entertainment is bringing to Blu-ray for the first time in the U.S. four titles from this golden era of HandMade Films, including Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits, Neil Jordan’s Mona Lisa, The Long Good Friday, and Withnail and I, all of which I’ll be reviewing individually.
Withnail and I is a black comedy about two out-of-work actors in 1969 London, who flee their flat in the city for a disastrous holiday in the country in an attempt to escape not only their existential despair but the creatures living among their dirty dishes as well. At the film’s opening, the thespians in question are trapped in an ever-increasing dependency on one another’s misery. Withnail (Richard E. Grant, Gosford Park) is a self-destructive, raging alcoholic, who is prone to acts of mad desperation such as drinking lighter fluid when they run out of booze. His other half, Marwood (Paul McGann, Doctor Who), lives in a constant state of fear, so much so that a simple trip to a pub toilet finds him worrying for his life. Neither of them are exactly likeable per se (Withnail certainly less than Marwood), the two of them drawing comparisons in my mind to The Young Ones or, to a lesser extent, Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye as I still find them at once fascinating and hilarious.
The film functions with but a skeleton plot, placing these characters in one potentially disastrous situation after another from drunkenly accosting a poacher in an attempt to obtain the eels in his trousers to spending a weekend alone with Withnail’s mad, gay, wealthy uncle Monty (who Marwood is convinced fancies him). What the film offers instead is a curiously slow-building theme about the end of a generation and the toll it takes on those who cannot accept the progress of time. In many ways, the film echoes the themes of Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas where he writes about watching the wave of the 60s disappear over the horizon. For that matter, the story of Withnail bears a passing resemblance to Fear and Loathing as we watch the drunken pair go from one spot of trouble to the next just like Duke and Gonzo. Further connecting these two pieces is artist Ralph Steadman, who did the stylized drawings for Thompson’s novel as well as the promotional material for Withnail.
I find that the film’s slowly developing thematic richness mirrors virtually all other aspects of the film, and by that I mean that the entire picture is deceptively straightforward. For instance, the cinematography appears at first to be nothing but simple medium shots of the two, but when they step outside and the camera is given some freedom of motion, the images come alive compositionally. This, in turn, forces us as viewers to reconsider the richness of the interiors. Moreover, Grant and McGann’s portrayals of the main characters appear at a glance to be comedic caricatures, but they gradually evolve into near complete humans, compelling us to constantly reassess their earlier actions. Only in retrospect does one realize just how masterful the performances Grant and McGann delivered actually are.
Withnail and I is a film that develops surpringly organically and only gets better the longer it sits with you. And the HD transfer of the film from Image looks and sounds wonderful. However, if one were to act on my recommendation and purchase this film, they would have to weigh their options between this and another terrific release of the film. The Criterion Collection’s previously released DVD boasts a respectable handful of special features and a transfer overseen by Director of Photography, Peter Hannan. On the other hand, the new release from Image Entertainment is of course an HD transfer, and offers but a theatrical trailer special feature-wise, but it will in fact be cheaper from the outset. Either way, you will have made a solid purchase.
Jef Burnham is a writer and educator living in Chicago, Illinois. While waging war on mankind from a glass booth in the parking lot of a grocery store, Jef managed to earn a degree in Film & Video from Columbia College Chicago, and is now the Editor-in-Chief of FilmMonthly.com.
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