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Comedy is a funny thing. One man’s Life of Brian is another man’s Band Camp, and I personally own surprisingly few comedies on DVD as there aren’t too many films that can keep me laughing beyond the first viewing. The aforementioned Monty Python film is one of them, as is the original Airplane and pretty much anything by Trey Parker and Matt Stone. Withnail and I is another…

Withnail and I: 20th Anniversary Edition
Anchor Bay 2001 Release


Withnail and I: 20th Anniversary Edition
Anchor Bay 2006 Release


I must have some booze. I demand to have some booze!

Feature


The film takes place in London, 1969, and chronicles the exploits of two ‘resting’ actors, the energetic, acerbic Withnail (Richard E. Grant), and the brooding, angst-ridden ‘I’ (Paul McGann, referred to as Marwood in the script, but never in the film). Seeking escape from the abject squalor of their Camden flat, made bearable only by a diet of drugs and alcohol, they embark on a trip to the Lake District and a weekend in a cottage owned by Withnail's uncle Monty (Richard Griffiths). However, a lack of food and drink, some dreadful weather and a group of decidedly inhospitable locals puts pressure on the duo’s already strained relationship. Things go from bad to worse when Monty himself arrives, and sets his lascivious sights on ‘I’…

That relatively short paragraph tells you pretty much all you really need to know about Bruce Robinson’s semi-autobiographical Withnail and I. I’m not going to attempt a detailed analysis of the film, as in all honesty I’m not really qualified, but I will say this: Withnail and I is one of the finest comedies—not just British comedies—I’ve ever seen. The casting is nigh on perfect, with Richard E. Grant’s turn as Withnail standing head and shoulders above some already impressive performances from Paul McGann and Ralph Brown. How a teetotaller like Grant was ever able to pull off such a convincing drunk act I’ll never know, but he is simply mesmerising in every scene in which he appears.

The film is also one of the most quotable I’ve ever encountered, with virtually every one of Withnail’s lines qualifying as ‘comedy gold’. The character of Withnail was apparently based on one of Bruce Robinson’s friends, the now-deceased Vivian MacKerrell, and it is this grounding in reality that lends the film a certain authenticity that is sometimes lacking from other comedies. Robinson and his friend actually lived in the terrible conditions portrayed in the film; they lived the Withnail and I experience (and more besides). It was obviously a very dark period in director’s life, but paradoxically it was also a time that gave birth to one of the greatest British comedies of all-time.

Withnail and I: 20th Anniversary Edition
Anchor Bay 2001 Release


Withnail and I: 20th Anniversary Edition
Anchor Bay 2006 Release


Scrubbers!

Video


This edition of Withnail and I arrives with a 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. That’s right, I said anamorphic! Owners of Anchor Bay’s previous attempt (or even the Criterion edition) will no doubt be gnashing their teeth now, but I guess it was inevitable that an anamorphic version would show up some day. Not only has the image been enhanced for widescreen displays, it’s also been digitally remastered to remove a lot of the grain that was so prevalent on the previous release. The result is a much cleaner and significantly more detailed image. The image is also progressively encoded this time around, which is good news for those of you with the necessary hardware. Just look at the second set of captures for an example of the differences between an interlaced and a progressive image.

As I mentioned above, the aspect ratio differs slightly from the original theatrical ratio, and the DVDs are framed slightly differently. It’s pretty inconsequential stuff though, and certainly nothing that will affect your enjoyment of the film. One thing that is substantially different is the colour rendition; just look at the first set of screen caps for an example of how certain scenes have had all the warmth sucked out of them, leaving them very blue and cold. This looks to be an intentional move on the part of the creative team, as not every shot in the film ‘suffers’ from the changes. All-in-all this is a pretty good effort, providing you can overlook the alterations, but personally I think the anamorphic enhancement and cleaner print outweigh the detrimental effect of any changes made to the palette.

Withnail and I: 20th Anniversary Edition
Anchor Bay 2001 Release

 
Withnail and I: 20th Anniversary Edition
Anchor Bay 2006 Release


We’ve gone on holiday by mistake.

Audio


The previous Anchor Bay release of the film included both Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo and 5.1 soundtracks, but this release goes one better with the inclusion of DTS 5.1. I say one better, but unfortunately this releases suffers from the same audio problems as the previous Anchor Bay effort. Those of you who owned the 2001 release disc may remember that the 5.1 track was nothing more than the Dolby 2.0 track distributed to each of the five speakers, which of course sounded horrible. Well, they’ve done it again.

So, we’re left with the Stereo track, which is actually pretty decent for what it is. Withnail and I’s soundtrack isn’t particularly dynamic anyway, so the lack of multi-channel surround sound isn’t a terribly crushing blow. Fidelity is reasonable given the age and origins of the source material, and the all-important dialogue is perfectly audible throughout. The varied music all sounds decent enough, particularly King Curtis’ fabulous rendition of ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’ during the opening credits, and there’s a certain charm to listening to a film in plain old Stereo. The lack of any subtitles is slightly annoying—more so for hard of hearing viewers that actually require them—and I’m not quite sure why Anchor Bay didn’t bother to include any.

Withnail and I: 20th Anniversary Edition
Anchor Bay 2001 Release

 
Withnail and I: 20th Anniversary Edition
Anchor Bay 2006 Release


We want the finest wines available to humanity. We want them here, and we want them now!!

Extras


Disc one includes two audio commentaries—the first by actors Paul McGann and Ralph Brown, and the second by writer/director Bruce Robinson. The actor track was present on the previous Anchor Bay release and is definitely the more entertaining of the two, as McGann and Brown have a great rapport. They reminisce about the experience of making the film, and have many amusing anecdotes to tell. The second, all-new, track is moderated by Carl Daft (real name, apparently) of Blue Underground, who nudges Bruce in the right direction from time to time. Although less energetic than the actor commentary, this track contains a lot of information about the various real-life characters and situations that inspired the events in the film and is sure to please rabid Withnail and I fans. Unfortunately the actual sound quality of the track isn’t up to the standards of the first, and there were times when I found it harder to make things out than perhaps I should have.

Moving on to disc two, ‘Postcards from Penrith’ is a reasonably interesting twenty-minute featurette in which two Withnail and I fans make the pilgrimage to the Lake District to visit the various locations featured in the film. Along the way we learn the phone number of the revered red telephone box, meet Ronny the farmer—who takes them to the ‘bull gate’—and also take a look inside Sleddale Hall, the dilapidated cottage that served as Crow Cragg. Sleddle Hall really has seen better days, and has more in common with scag head’s squat than the quaint little cottage pictured in the movie. The guys take the time to re-enact various scenes from the film, and the results can be seen on their website.

A fifteen minute interview with writer/director Bruce Robinson follows. Robinson is unusually frank about the whole affair, and is not afraid to blast Handmade Films and producer Denis O’Brien in particular. He recounts how he threatened to walk away from the whole thing just days into production, so incensed was he by the interference. It was a gamble, but a gamble that paid off, and Robinson was pretty much left alone to finish the production from there on in. Even so, Robinson clearly harbours a great deal of hostility towards the people who financed the film.

Withnail and I: 20th Anniversary Edition
Anchor Bay 2001 Release

 
Withnail and I: 20th Anniversary Edition
Anchor Bay 2006 Release


‘Withnail and Us’ is a twenty-five minute featurette that includes interviews with most of the principal cast, a number of the crew and various celebrity admirers (including Adam Buxton and Joe Cornish of The Adman and Joe Show fame). The featurette includes footage from Bruce Robinson’s home movies from the sixties, along with interviews with a number of ‘everyday’ Withnail fans, who aren’t afraid to tell you how many times they’ve seen the film, or to reel off one of their favourite quotes.

The ‘Withnail and I Drinking Game’ is a silly, but fun, feature introduced by Peter McNamara (resting actor). Peter takes us through the rules of the game, of which there are two variations: the Withnail and the Marwood. The latter is considered the ‘lightweight twot’ option, but you stand a far greater chance of survival playing the game the Marwood way… There’s also a little background information on how the film came to be (taken from Bruce Robinson’s diary), so you can learn while you get smashed.

The ‘Swearathon’ is another bit of fun, and is once again introduced by Peter McNamara. Basically it is every single one of the numerous profanities uttered throughout Withnail and I played consecutively, in chronological order. That’s a whole lot of swearing (about a minute’s worth). This is followed by the film’s original, amusing, theatrical trailer and a photo gallery containing around twenty black and white stills.

Finally, the third disc in the set includes the entire score, which amounts to eight tracks in total. Just don’t expect any of the iconic songs featured in the film. The set also features a four page booklet that includes twenty things you might want to know about Withnail and I. For example, did you know that in the scene where Withnail downs a bottle of lighter fluid, Bruce Robinson deliberately replaced the water in the bottle with vinegar to get a more realistic reaction from Grant?

Withnail and I: 20th Anniversary Edition
Anchor Bay 2001 Release

 
Withnail and I: 20th Anniversary Edition
Anchor Bay 2006 Release


Honestly, I’ve only had a few ales.

Overall


Withnail and I is a bit of a gem, and I only wish I’d given it the attention it deserves a little earlier in life. Audio issues aside, this 20th Anniversary Edition from Anchor Bay represents a significant step up in quality over the previous effort, with a much cleaner, anamorphic transfer and a greater selection of supplemental material. It is these extras that will most likely entice prospective buyers—specifically the input from Bruce Robinson—and while not as exhaustive as I’d have liked, I thought the bonus content struck a reasonable balance between the informative and the absurd. Even if the absence of any new material featuring Richard E. Grant is lamentable, devoted fans will lap this Anniversary Edition up, and it’s the perfect place for Withnail virgins to start their love affair with the film.


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