My introduction to the works of Bruce Robinson wasn't 'Withnail and I,' an "autobiography" that is considered his greatest work. Of course, there aren't many other options in this particular line of conversation, considering Robinson has only directed four films (even if he has appeared in and written a few others) to his credit, one of which, 'The Rum Diaries' with Johnny Depp, is still in post-production. Rather, I got my first look at his works with the amazing 'How to Get Ahead in Advertising,' a subversive comedy if ever there was one. There are few similarities between these two films, aside from the fact that both star the underrated Richard E. Grant, whose career path most certainly has not been indicative of his talent.
It is through my love of 'Advertising' that I gave 'Withnail and I' a shot, and damned if I didn't find another must own film for my library, even if I'm far too young to comprehend the world portrayed within. I'll never quite understand the countryside of England in 1969, nor will I try to, but it doesn't take much effort to relate to the main characters of the film through their missteps, fights, and follies.
Marwood (Paul McGann, the titular "and I" or "& I") and his flatmate Withnail (Grant) are seeking escape. Escape from their lives in the city, their responsibilities, and the necessity to clean the veritable sinkhole that their home has become. Down and out, with no acting jobs in sight, they head out to the country, to stay at Uncle Monty (Richard Griffith, long before his 'Harry Potter' days)'s house in the country. What the pair of slackers forget, though, is everything, as they fight to make ends meet against the different, harsher backdrop that they thought would be so much simpler than the city. As they spiral to their own undoings, they'll find they have to survive a lurking poacher who may want blood, the amorous advances of the rotund Monty, the harsh weather, and the fact that these simple country folk don't take too kindly to those who look down on them.
This film isn't a laugh riot, not your standard comedy. Rather, it's more a dark, dark comedy, one that would leave audiences uncomfortable if it weren't for the fact that it all seems so strangely familiar. The two characters are very much "catch alls," characters we can relate to, as they try to make do with what little they have, wasting every opportunity to advance in life by wallowing in their own twisted despair.
Withnail especially is one amazing character. Grant plays the part with undeniable vigor, becoming a truly contemptible human being, whose every thought and word borders on the insane. It's in his eyes, the truly maniacal lenses through which he sees the world, with himself in the center of it all. He's good for one thing, and that's nothing, a bad influence as he drags Marwood down with him in his malaise. He may care for his friend, but you wouldn't be able to see it often, as he sabotages poor Marwood at every turn with his selfish nature.
This holiday-gone-awry flick doesn't resort to crude potty humor, instead giving us situational comedy that is both intelligent and ridiculous. Supporting characters all seem amazingly extreme and horrible, particularly the drug pushing Danny (Ralph Brown, playing a role very similar to the ones fans will remember him from, in 'Wayne's World 2'), as though we're seeing everything through Marwood's naive, believing eyes. The portrayal of Monty seems reminiscent of the memories of an attack barely survived, exaggerated for effect, scaring the storyteller to the point where the man can't possibly have any actions that don't have their eventual paybacks. As we see the world through Robinson's eyes as Marwood, we see what may have been a large period of his life that may be condensed into a short period of time, but we believe every minute of it, no matter how unbelievable it may be at times. With young performers giving it their all in their first film roles, 'Withnail and I' is a true cult film, hilarious without inducing laughs, and strangely sad without bringing sympathy.
The HandMade Films titles distributed by Image received a bad reputation when they hit Blu-ray. To be fair, they earned every single negative word that these discs received. 'Withnail and I' is among the worst titles in the wave, with an ugly 1080p AVC MPEG-4 codec that belongs in the bottom tier of Blu-ray, a modern release that is worse than the first waves on the format.
The picture is flat, and detail is greatly lacking. Shadow detail is awful, blacks are murky, and color is often drained. Exterior shots are much more clear than interiors, but beyond better color resolution, they aren't worth giving any real praise. Skies look polluted, like they were filmed directly above a sweatshop in China, or anywhere in Los Angeles. The picture is sometimes blurry, often uninspiring, occasionally laden with artifacts and random dirt specks, and is usually splotchy. In short, serious fans will rue the day they bought this disc.
Equally inept, if not more so, the Linear PCM 2.0 track afforded 'Withnail and I' is so bad that calling it poor is a compliment.
The background of the film is constantly loaded with static and hiss, some random crackle, and some seriously high pitched feedback, sometimes all at once. It's thoroughly distracting, VHS-grade ugly. Dialogue is understandable, but is often the home of the strongest undercurrent of garbage found on the mix, and raised volumes only enhance the problems, bringing a state of hollowness with them. Bass levels are awkward in their few moments of presence in the soundtrack, which sounds incredibly screechy, blending poorly with the rest of the film. Find the meanest, most critical line of dialogue in the film, and you'll have a great way to describe this track. Marwood's thumbs may have gone weird, but mine have pointed down, twice now, for the presentation of this disc.
The 20th Anniversary Edition DVD in the UK may have been given more than a few features (featurettes, interviews, an audio commentary, and a music CD), while previous editions also featured an earlier recorded commentary. None of that finds its way onto this release, which cops out a single, uninteresting waste of time that doesn't even total one full minute. Lame.
Selected to be a part of the BFI 100 in 1999, 'Withnail and I' is a film so simple in scope and story that it may be overlooked by some audiences. This isn't like 'Napoloeon Dynamite,' a comedy that can fail to produce any laughter from some audiences, though there may be some similarities between the two types of storytelling. With great acting performances by a few green actors, and an autobiographical script from Robinson, this film deserves only the best, even if this Blu-ray release is anything but. Thankfully it has come at a budget price, but even that may be too much for what we get here. A perfect example of a good flick getting a bad, bad disc.