Judge Gordon Sullivan and I stayed in the city and watched this movie.
"We just ran out of wine. What are we gonna do about it?"
Asking a film studies person, or even a serious cinephile, to name their favorite film is often folly. Some haven't really thought about it, others love to many films to name, and still more could only answer the question in more specific terms like "Well, my favorite studio Western from 1950 is Winchester '73." I've been asked the question a time or two myself. Some years ago I decided to answer with Withnail and I. I think it's a good choice because although I'll never be able to pick an all-time favorite, Withnail has been consistently in my Top 10 since I saw it. Plus it makes a great litmus test: if the person who asked about my favorite film hasn't seen it, I get a chance to evangelize about the film's greatness, but if they're familiar with the film we have an instant rapport. Because I'm mildly obsessed with the film, this Blu-ray from Image is the fourth disc of Withnail in my collection, and while Region 1 fans will enjoy the upgrades from Criterion's DVD, this is far from a definitive release of this classic film.
Withnail and I is the story of the title characters, out-of-work actors living in London squalor at the tail end of the 1960s. Withnail (Richard E. Grant, Monsieur N.) has a rich uncle (Richard Griffiths, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone) with a house in the countryside. To escape their meager existence, Withnail and his companion (Paul McGann, Alien 3) go to this cabin and struggle with food, their careers, and eventually Uncle Monty's presence.
Withnail and I is ostensibly a comedy, one about the misadventures of two drugged-out actors transported from London to the countryside. Luckily for film fans, its more than that. Most of the comedy lies in the film's dialogue, spoken with absolute verve by the trio of leads, but the film's real power lies in the fact that it's a mediation on friendship and growing up. The film balances on the knife edge of absurdity, and only slowly reveals both how funny and how poignant it is on multiple viewings. Taken at first glance it's just about a jerk (Withnail) and his spineless friend (I) being the London version of city slickers in the English countryside. In fact, nothing much happens in the film, and that's its beauty. The relative lack of plot gives the characters and dialogue time to sink in, and that makes the film worth watching a first time and an experience enriched by multiple viewings.
Withnail and I has seen a number of digital releases both here and across the pond. The first one worth considering was Criterion's release of the film, which included subtitles, a documentary, the trailer, and some stills. Its only major drawback was the lack of an anamorphic transfer. Then came the British 20th Anniversary Edition. For the region-free, this release was amazing: an anamorphic transfer, commentaries by director Bruce Robinson and actors Paul McGann and Ralph Brown, more documentaries, and featurettes celebrating the film's cult status. It even included a soundtrack disc. This was superseded by the British Blu-ray, which gave the film a hi-def upgrade (though it lost the soundtrack disc). This Blu-ray seemed like it would be the definitive edition of the film, for those who could play all the extras (the film is watchable on a PS3, for instance, since the disc is Region A, but the extras refuse to work).
Now, though, Image has given fans a new release of the film. The video, like all releases of Withnail looks pretty soft in this AVC-encoded transfer, and since this is a low-budget film from the 1980s, there's some print damage and wear and occasional compression artifacts. However, this is a definite improvement over the previous Criterion release (and, to these eyes, even a slight bit better than the British Blu-ray in terms of color and detail). There is some texture in Withnail's coat, for instance, that's harder to see in previous releases, and any softness tends to work in the film's favor, since it generally goes for a grimy, lived-in look anyway. The uncompressed PCM stereo does a fine job with dialogue, and any problems like hiss are easily overlooked. Subtitles are included for those who want to read along with Withnail. Aside from the film's standard-def trailer, there are no extras. So, while this might be the strongest audiovisual presentation, fans are going to want to seek one of the import discs to get the full Withnail picture.
I've deliberately avoided saying too much about the film beyond its merits. I've heard of too many viewers being unimpressed with the film because it was talked up as "The greatest British comedy of the 1980s," and Withnail and I is a far too delicate creature to stand under that heavy load. Instead, the film should be experienced with as little fanfare as possible, and preferably experienced again to get the full effect. This Blu-ray from Image is an excellent way to start a journey into Withnail and I, but those who grow to love the film (or who love it already) are going to want to track down at least one of the other discs (Criterion or import) so those extras can provide a fuller picture of the film.
The film demands better, but Withnail and I is not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Image Entertainment
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