Withnail and I (UK - BD)
Chris Gould must have some booze. In fact, he demands to have some booze!
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 their 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's 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 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.
This Blu-ray edition of Withnail and I arrives with a 1.78:1 widescreen transfer (1080p/AVC) that offers a marginal upgrade over the previous special edition DVD. In fact, both versions appear to have used the same print as the basis for their masters, as the colour timing and film artefacts are all-but identical. The Blu-ray is more detailed than the DVD, but it's still quite soft overall and certainly not the revelatory experience I was (perhaps unfairly) hoping for. With that said, detail is definitely improved, and this is particularly obvious in the backgrounds—it's now possible to pick out the labels on empty bottles in the Camden flat. As stated above, colours are very similar to the DVD release, which is to say that they are reasonably natural, if cool. However, blacks are more of a dirty brown colour and there's quite a lot of grain present in the darker scenes. Other than that it's actually a pretty clean image, with no glaringly obvious print damage (just the odd speck here and there).
If I were to be reviewing this on a comparative basis with the majority of recent Blu-ray releases it would fall woefully short of the expected standards, but when viewed in context it's not actually half bad. It remains relatively faithful to the low budget source material and it's certainly the best way to view Withnail and I short of taking a trip back in time to catch it at the cinema.
My remembrance of the audio tracks on the previous DVD releases isn't particularly strong, but I know that they weren't exactly brilliant. Skimming through my old review reveals that the 5.1 tracks on the older DVD releases were nothing more than 2.0 tracks distributed to all channels, and it saddens me to report that the DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track on this BD release is no different.
Upon discovering this I abandoned the DTS-HD track and went for the LPCM 2.0 Stereo option. Withnail and I’s soundtrack isn't particularly dynamic, so the lack of multi-channel surround sound isn’t a crushing blow. Fidelity is reasonable given the age and origins of the source material, and the all-important dialogue is perfectly clear 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 like Withnail in plain old Stereo. It certainly set the tone for me.
Like the DVD before it, the BD release lacks subtitles of any kind. While I don't require them, there are plenty of people who do and it's a bit of a no-no to omit them entirely. Naughty Anchor Bay.
The bulk of the following is taken from my region two DVD release of the film, which features near-identical bonus material to that of this Blu-ray release. Sorry for being lazy, but there just aren't enough hours in the day!
The disc 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 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 we come to ‘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.
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.
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.
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.
‘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.
Oh, the disc also includes a number of behind-the-scenes stills taken by Ralph Steadman and the film's original theatrical trailer.
Withnail and I is a classic and this Blu-ray from Anchor Bay represents the best-looking version of the film you're likely to see. The bonus material is still good fun and quite informative in places, although it is missing the CD soundtrack that accompanied the 25th Anniversary DVD release. If only the audio issues had been fixed for this release... It's a missed opportunity. However, this is obviously still the best choice for Withnail's legions of hardcore fans, so it comes recommended.
* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray release and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.
Review by Chris Gould
Suitable only for persons of 15 years and over
Release Date: 17th August 2009
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Mater Audio 5.1 English, PCM 2.0 Stereo English
Extras: Audio Commentary by Actors Paul McGann and Ralph Brown, Audio Commentary by Writer/Director Bruce Robinson, 'Postcards from Penrith' Featurette, Interview with Bruce Robinson, 'Withnail and Us' Featurette, Withnail and I Drinking Game, 'Swearathon', Theatrical Trailer, Photo Gallery
Easter Egg: No
Director: Bruce Robinson
Cast: Richard E. Grant , Paul McGann, Richard Griffiths, Ralph Brown
Length: 107 minutes
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