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Withnail and I

Image // Unrated // August 24, 2010
List Price: $17.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted August 20, 2010 | E-mail the Author
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Many gallons of wine.
Why not? Lighter fluid.

Withnail (Richard E. Grant) demands booze. It's only fair. I mean, how else is a hyperkinetic failed actor living in a hovel in Camdentown supposed to keep warm in the many months between gigs? Besides, it's 1969: hedonism's kind of the new thing. Withnail keeps himself in enough of a perpetual drunken stupor that he can tolerate living in a rat-infested hole in the wall for entire minutes at a time. His downbeat, nameless flatmate -- y'know, the "I" in the title (played by Paul McGann) -- meanwhile keeps pestering Withnail to hit his father up for some spending money. Despite being every bit as broke and half-starved, Withnail refuses, but hey...a compromise! He asks his eccentric uncle Monty (Richard Griffiths) for the keys to his cottage in the country instead. This bad streak at the whole acting game will probably pass sooner or later, I guess, and they might as well spend the meantime recollecting themselves on holiday.

Turns out Withnail and "I" are trading one unliveable pit of despair for another. Monty's cottage is a few exits and a long, unpaved road past the middle of nowhere. The weather's insufferable. The two of 'em have to smash apart furniture and torch it to make it through the first night. The cottage itself has crumbled into decay. There's no food to be found. The locals either ignore them or are pestered into a near-murderous rage. These two self-indulgent twentysomethings who grew up in wealth and privilege have to start fending for themselves (kind of), from slaughtering their chicken dinner to "fishing" with a double-barrelled rifle. Just about the time you start to think that Withnail and I is settling into an affable fish-out-of-water comedy, it grabs hold of the gears and shifts into something else entirely as Uncle Monty drops in for a visit. Monty wants to spend some time with his favorite nephew, sure, but what he really wants is to...pant! leer! get to know "I". Hilarity ensues.

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hilarity ensues? If there's one defining characteristic of Withnail and I, it's that hilarity never stops ensuing. The ensuing of hilarity is ceaseless and without end. I'm going to stop that now. Withnail and I is a masterful ballet of wit and vulgarity: precisely what you'd expect from two well-educated, hedonistic twentysomethings raised in wealth, privilege, and the theatre. Striking a balance between the eloquent and the obscene, the dialogue is unrelentingly brilliant: perfectly constructed, devastatingly hilarious, and endlessly quotable. Withnail and I correctly recognizes that its sterling writing and flawless cast are its two most towering strengths, and the overall story is a thinly-sketched showcase for both. The movie never gets bogged down by the mechanics of its plot and has no need to lean on any sort of high-concept premise as a crutch. Richard E. Grant and Paul McGann are just fascinating to watch, and with no flashbacks and minimal exposition, they each draw distinct and impressively multidimensional characters. One of the greatest drunks ever committed to film, Withnail is lanky, exciteable, and every bit as drawn to booze as a moth is to a flame; "I" is quieter, more subdued, and more overtly insecure. Being on the short and not-particularly-imposing side, "I" wants to project a more conventionally masculine front than he's capable of, and he's noticeably wounded whenever that's in question. That's rough going for him seeing as how so much of the third act hinges on "I" fending off the aggressive advances of a man who towers over him in every direction.

Though Withnail and I owes so much to its vulgar wit and stellar cast, there's a rather impactful emotional core to it all as well. In the same way it so deftly melds the obscene and the artful, the film is equally skilled at blending tragedy and comedy. The two title characters turn to alcohol and their own senses of humor to mask the utter failure of their careers. They both hail from successful families and, despite their staggeringly expensive educations and being afforded so many opportunities, have profoundly failed in achieving their own dreams. They live in squalor, they're starving, their hopes and dreams have been eviscerated, and yet it's somehow a comedy. Despite the way that summary a couple paragraphs up may read, Withnail and I doesn't devolve into rote 'gay panic'. Monty's insatiable lust isn't played purely for laughs. There is that, of course, but the movie takes care to paint him as a lonely man who deserves our sympathy, not mindlessly mocking derision. After all, the bonds between men are the connective threads holding the movie together. There's an intimacy -- platonic, yes, but an intimacy just the same -- between Withnail and "I" that transcends the traditional definitions of friendship. Withnail and I would be unwatchable were it not for the remarkable chemistry that Grant and McGann have with one other, and it's a
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testament to their performances how resonant the decay of such an exceptionally close relationship proves to be. I'm honor-bound not to spoil the ending of the film, as eager as I am to discuss it, but suffice it to say that it brilliantly juggles a variety of very different emotions. Growing up can be quite a sad thing to witness.

Withnail and I is one of the most endlessly adored comedies the world over, and it's not at all difficult to see why. Its craftsmanship is flawless. There's an attention to detail...a disinterest in settling for the simple or obvious...that sets it apart. It takes care to polish the smaller details, such as bringing a rickety car with a busted headlight to a complete stop, fiddling with a windshield wiper that only covers the passenger side, and hoping that's enough to trudge through the torrential rain. Withnail and I is sufficiently confident to rely on its gleamingly sharp dialogue and small moments such as that for its laughs. There aren't any oversized, cartoonishly comedic setpieces because it has no need for any. Seemingly every single line in the film is worth quoting, and despite being so intensely driven by its dialogue and an emphasis on characterization, the pace is surprisingly nimble. Withnail and I feels as if it clocks in at maybe 45 minutes even though it runs more than twice that length. The instant the end credits started their upward crawl, my immediate reaction was to replay it again from the start. This is a film that demands to be watched time and again. Withnail and I boasts a deservedly rabid cult following, and that's why it's such a disappointment to see such a brilliant movie saddled with such lackluster treatment on Blu-ray. The commentaries and stack of extras from earlier releases have been tossed. The presentation is rather shoddy. Then again, Withnail and I is such an incredible movie, the visuals are substandard for Blu-ray but still massively improved over earlier releases, and it's all of $13 on Amazon. I guess an argument could be made that this Blu-ray disc is good enough for the price, but in this day and age, is that really enough? I'm tempted to say Rent It and hope that someone, somewhere will eventually issue a proper high definition release.

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sure Withnail and I's cinematography and choice of film stock are limiting factors, yes, but this Blu-ray disc is a disappointment even for a lower budgeted film from the mid-'80s. The image is extremely soft, and most every last trace of of texture has been filtered away, leaving its grain structure almost entirely indistinct. There's practically no fine detail to speak of whatsoever. Even with its flat contrast and anemic black levels, Withnail and I still suffers from some nasty crushing in the shadows. Patches of black...or what passes for black here, at least...are also riddled with thick, clumpy noise. Optical titles almost always look particularly crisp on Blu-ray, but in Withnail and I, they're as fuzzy and blurred as everything else.

Still, this Blu-ray disc isn't unwatchable, and even with the lackluster detail, there's a sense of clarity that occasionally sets it apart from what I'd expect out of a DVD: patterns in clothing, distant shots of Withnail and "I" against the pastoral backdrop...that sort of thing. I guess it could also be argued that the fact that Withnail and I looks fifteen years older than it actually is makes it all the more period-appropriate. For all its faults, I'll admit that Withnail and I isn't as marred by damage or speckling as I would've expected either. Still, this is a pretty shoddy effort. Even with as much as I love the movie and even with as many missteps as its bargain basement sticker price can forgive, Withnail and I is still tough to recommend on Blu-ray.

Withnail and I is presented without any matting and is served up on a single layer, single sided Blu-ray disc. The AVC encode is so tiny -- barely creeping past the 16 gig mark -- that it could almost squeeze onto a single-layer HD DVD disc, even.

At least Withnail and I sounds better than it looks. The PCM stereo soundtrack is dated and thin, not surprisingly, but it's generally listenable enough. The film's dialogue remains consistently discernable throughout -- no small feat with accents this thick -- and the hiss that's lurking in the background is generally unintrusive. It does spike in a few scenes but is easily shrugged off. The only other background noise that creeps in stems from a deliberately scratchy record in the soundtrack, and obviously that shouldn't be chalked up as a flaw. The sax riffs that open Withnail and I are piercing and painful, but there's nothing quite like that anywhere else in the mix. Don't waltz in expecting anything resembling bass. This isn't entirely unexpected and there's little cause for the subwoofer to be rattling anyway, but the licensed Hendrix and Beatles tunes aren't bolstered by any reinforcement in the low-end whatsoever, and even a building being demolished doesn't pack the faintest wallop. I don't think Withnail and I would sound any different if I'd pumped it through the built-in speakers on my TV rather than through an overpriced home theater rig, but it's fine for what it is anyway.

No dubs, alternate mixes, or commentary tracks this time around. No, the PCM audio is it as far as soundtracks go, although for those of you struggling with the 'eavy accents, English subtitles (SDH) have been provided.

The extras from the Criterion DVD set and the recent British Blu-ray release have both been chucked out the driver's side window. The only thing Image could be bothered to include here is a standard definition trailer. Yes, that means the extras run a grand total of 86 seconds.

The Final Word
A comedy as enduring and infectious as Withnail and I deserves better than this straight-to-the-bargain-bin treatment. Seemingly little-to-no effort went into remastering the film for this high definition release, and not bothering to include any of the extras from earlier DVDs and Blu-ray discs is a definite disappointment as well. On one hand, it's not too hard to make a case for this Blu-ray disc: it's all of $13 on Amazon as I write this, it's still a vast improvement over the non-anamorphic Criterion DVD from nearly a full decade back, and there's the brilliance of the film itself, of course. It's just painful to see a masterfully crafted film saddled with a rushed, careless Blu-ray disc. I'll split the difference and just say Rent It.

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