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Feature


Set in London, 1969, the film 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, because 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.

Video


Previous releases of Withnail and I from Anchor Bay and Studiocanal have left something to be desired (particularly the latter). Both utilised dated masters lacking in detail and presenting slightly muddy colours, compounded by filtering. For this release Arrow has created a new 2K restoration of the film from the original camera negative, supervised and approved by director of photography Peter Hannan. The results are simply marvellous.

Framed at 1.85:1 (1080p/AVC) and revealing a smidgen more picture information at the sides, comparing this new edition to the older Blu-rays is like lifting a foggy veil. The level of detail on offer is way beyond that of the previous releases, which will have you noticing all sorts of things that were previously indistinct or just plain ‘mushy’. Faces and clothing benefit the most, as both are infinitely more textured. The creases in Withnail’s tortured visage have never been clearer; you can pick out the individual lines of his corduroy trousers; the strands of I’s great mop of hair are now crystal clear… I could go on, but suffice to say the image is so much better than any other version I’ve personally seen it was almost as if I was watching a different film. Of course, this being Withnail and I there’s  a constant flurry of grain dancing across the screen, of the sort that many casual viewers could describe as heavy. The difference here is that it is more finely resolved than the older versions, so whereas it previously had a clumpy appearance it now looks natural, particularly in the darker scenes.

There isn’t a huge difference between the colour grading of this release and what’s come before, but once again there are noticeable improvements. Some scenes in the older releases had a sickly, yellow pallor about them, with others looking overtly cold due to a blue tint, but neither issue is present here. Whites now look white instead of an off colour, and the entire palette is cleaner, better-saturated and more natural than ever. Blacks — which were always more of a murky brown on releases gone by — are also improved, which in turn grants the picture more depth than ever before.

Image integrity is exemplary, with virtually no film artefacts on show (I think I spotted one of any consequence), which again is an improvement over what’s come before. The encode is up to Arrow’s usual high standards, with no compression issues to report, and of course you won’t find any edge ringing, heavy-handed noise reduction, or other unwanted side-effects of overzealous digital processing. When I reviewed the Anchor Bay Blu-ray release of the film I remarked that it fell woefully short of the standards achieved by the best Blu-rays, but that it wasn’t too bad on a comparative basis to what had come before. Well, this Arrow release puts the older discs firmly in the shade, after publicly shaming them and schooling lazy distributors on how to properly treat a beloved classic. I never imagined that Withnail and I could look this good on any format, but it does and I’m ecstatic!

Audio


My recollection of the audio tracks on the previous Blu-ray releases isn't particularly strong, but referring to my earlier review of the Anchor Bay edition revealed that I wasn’t overly impressed by the pseudo 5.1 track. Curiously the old release featured a 2.0 stereo track, whereas this release features only the original mono audio encoded as LPCM 1.0. I’m assuming that the ‘stereo’ track on the old release was nothing more than an upmix, because everything I have read indicates that Withnail’s original audio mix was mono.

Anyway, with that in mind I wasn’t expecting a whole lot from the film’s soundtrack. That’s not intended as a disparaging remark, merely an acknowledgement of the film’s low-budget origins and single-channel audio mix. Thankfully it actually sounded quite a bit better than I was expecting. Of course the track isn’t particularly dynamic — there are no crystal clear highs or earth-shattering lows here — but fidelity is surprisingly good and the film’s all-important dialogue is perfectly clear throughout. The varied music also sounds better than I recall, particularly King Curtis’ fabulous rendition of ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’ during the opening credits, not to mention Hendrix’s ‘All Along the Watchtower’. Something just feels right about listening to a film like Withnail in plain old mono; it really sets the tone.

Best I can tell, this is an accurate representation of the original audio mix, but said mix was never that impressive to begin with. Of course, as I’ve said before, Arrow’s primary goal appears to be to faithfully reproduce the original theatrical experience on home video, so in that respect the track does its job perfectly well. I’d rather have an honest, quality mono mix than a forced, box-ticking 5.1 mix any day of the week.

Extras


To my surprise the bulk of the bonus material included in this release seems to be new to home video; certainly, very little of it appears on the three older versions in my collection. The list below should give you an idea of what to expect, and I’ve indicated where a particular feature was previously available on DVD or Blu-ray.

  • How to Get Ahead in Advertising: The biggest draw here is arguably Bruce Robinson’s follow-up feature, newly transferred from original film elements and approved by director of photography Peter Hannan. It's another striking visual presentation, sharing many characteristics with Withnail; colours are natural, grain is finely resolved (for the most part), and there are almost no artefacts to speak of. The LPCM 2.0 audio also impresses, presenting clear dialogue and effects, including some limited stereo separation. To be perfectly honest I could see this disc selling well as a stand-alone release, so its inclusion here adds great value to package as a whole.
  • Audio commentary by writer-director Bruce Robinson: This track appeared on both the older DVD and Blu-ray releases of the film. It’s a fairly entertaining and enlightening effort, with Robinson offering some valuable insights into the creative process and the real-life events that inspired him.
  • Audio commentary by critic and writer Kevin Jackson, author of the BFI Modern Classic on Withnail and I: The second commentary is brand new to this release, but to be brutally honest I wasn’t at all impressed. Jackson spends more time laughing at the film than he does talking about it, occasionally punctuating the drawn out silences with inane observations. One that stuck with me was a comment about how an excised scene about ‘I’ scrubbing his boots with essence of petunia would have somehow added to the film, when it’s currently explained by way of a succinct line of dialogue.
  • Withnail Weekend Documentaries (first screened on Channel 4 in 1999)
    • The Peculiar Memories of Bruce Robinson: This lengthy piece examines the director’s career from his own perspective, featuring footage of him working at home while discussing his various projects and attitudes to life. It’s certainly the most revealing piece in this collection of Channel 4 shorts, and well worth watching if you’re a Robinson fan.
    • Withnail and Us: Previously available on older releases, this featurette 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.
    • I Demand to Have Some Booze: A group of annoying, impossibly nineties-looking students play the Withnail and I drinking game. One participant actually drinks lighter fluid, the dingbat. Still, I bet it seemed like a good idea at the time…
    • Withnail on the Pier: Footage from a screening of Withnail and I on Brighton pier, complete with interviews conducted in deckchairs with many of the film’s fans and cast member Ralph Brown.
  • An Interview with Michael Pickwoad: This interview with the production designer is presented in two parts (one per disc) and covers his work on both Withnail and I and How to Get Ahead in Advertising. He talks about his early career, how he became involved with the productions, and recounts stories of working with Robinson, the actors, and on the films in general.
  • Theatrical Trailers: Trailers for both films are included, although they’re in pretty rough shape.
  • Exclusive limited edition hardback book packaging (2,000 copies) containing new writing on the films, reprints of key articles on Withnail and I, deleted scenes and more across 200 pages, illustrated with original production stills: Unfortunately we didn’t get the coffee table book with our review sample, so I’m unable to comment on this particular aspect of the release.

Overall


Withnail and I is a genuine classic and Arrow’s Blu-ray release not only annihilates the previous editions, but stands as one of the best presentations I’ve seen this year. I honestly can’t express how happy I am that one of my favourite films has been subject to such care and attention. I’d actually be surprised if the film looked this good theatrically, such is the quality of the visual transfer. The audio is no slouch either, offering arguably the most faithful and enjoyable track to grace a Withnail home video release thus far. While I didn’t have access to the finished set with the book the on-disc content is largely enjoyable, but it is the inclusion of Robinson’s follow-up How to Get Ahead in Advertising that really elevates the package. I know the asking price for this one is higher than most releases, but Arrow has put together a fantastic set for Withnail fans, one that comes highly recommended.

* Note: The images below 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.

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