Withnail and I
Withnail and I
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Withnail and I tells the story of two out-of-work actors and roommates in England, circa 1969. They aren’t really actors so much as boozing druggies, or perhaps more accurately druggy boozers. Either way, they don’t do much acting and do do a lot of drinking and drugs. "I" is actually Marwood (identified only in the script as such) played by Paul McGann. He narrates the film. Withnail, played by Richard E. Grant, is the more eccentric of the two. While "I" is responsible, Withnail is the cowardly King of vice.

Losing their minds in the poverty and cold of the city, they go for a weekend in the country to refresh themselves. Withnail’s Uncle Monty has lent them the keys to a country house. Problems soon arise and the comedy begins.

The film is a character drama whose comedy flows naturally from the eccentricities of the characters. At times, this approach leads to clichéd, sitcom-like humor because of the material's familiarity. Not everyone is (or has been) a drunk, but we have all certainly known one.

A fine example of this natural comedy is in the brilliant performance of Richard Griffiths as Uncle Monty, the classic aging British homosexual. His lines derive their comedy from the coloring his character gives them. "I think the carrot infinitely more fascinating than the geranium. The carrot has mystery. Flowers are essentially tarts. Prostitutes for the bees. There is you'll agree a certain je ne se quoi oh so very special about a firm young carrot," he says and we know things beyond just horticulture are going on here.

Withnail and I contains Grant’s career-making performance (he would go on to become the nutty British character actor of choice for Hollywood). Withnail's desperation for food and work is matched and defeated only by his quest for liquor. After spitting, he remarks, "Jesus, look at that. Apart from a raw potato, that's the only solid to have passed my lips in the last sixty hours." And, after applying deep heat to his entire body, "How can it be so cold in here? It's like Greenland in here. We've got to get some booze. It's the only solution to this intense cold. Something's got to be done. We can't go on like this. I'm a trained actor reduced to the status of a bum!" He then knocks back a bottle of lighter fluid.

McGann shines in his underplayed way as well. His desperation, loss, and growing realization that he’s living the wrong life stand as one of the best "coming-of-age" depictions put on film. He may not have the best dialogue, outside of the famous "my thumbs have gone weird," but he carries the film as its center.

The real star, however, is writer and director Bruce Robinson. This was his first film as director after scripting The Killing Fields. His dialogue is fantastic throughout. It is not the usual one-voice-through-a-thousand-mouths situation, as each character has a distinct sound and rhythm. A case in point is Ralph Brown’s Danny with his fumbling, numb lips and his lines with their pompous stupidity: "I don't advise a hair cut man. All hairdressers are in the employment of the government. Hair are your aerials. They pick up signals from the cosmos and transmit them directly into the brain. This is the reason bald-headed men are uptight."

For a first-time director, Robinson’s camera is surprisingly assured, interchanging close-ups with medium and long shots for emphasis. The photography of the countryside is at times staggeringly beautiful and this may mostly be due to cinematographer Peter Hannan.

Hannan oversaw the Criterion Collection’s DVD transfer of Withnail and I. The print can be grainy but this comes from the original low-budget production. Yet, the graininess works well to reflect the terrible condition of the characters’ lifestyles. The DVD also includes a documentary on the film called Withnail and Us. It runs about 30 minutes and is more celebratory than informative. Artist Ralph Steadman provides a limited edition poster and some pre-production photographs.

 


Withnail and I is now available on DVD from The Criterion Collection in a new digital transfer (1.85:1 aspect ratio) created from the 35mm interpositive and the original magnetic tracks. The transfer was supervised by cinemtographer Peter Hannan. The DVD includes Withnail and Us (1999), a documentary on the film; rare pre-production photos by Ralph Steadman; the original theatrical trailer; and a limited-edition poster of the original film art by Ralph Steadman. Suggested retail price: $29.95. For more information, check out The Criterion Collection Web site.