- Rated R
- Buy the BD
Reviewed by Ross Ruediger
robably the most profound line ever written in regard to “Withnail & I” describes it as being "as deep as you want it to be or as shallow as you need it to be.” I don’t know who wrote that, but I cannot discuss the film without mentioning it. Set in the final months of 1969, “Withnail” traces the antics of two out of work actors living in a filth-laden flat in Camden Town, London. To “escape all this hideousness,” they spend their time in booze and drug-addled hazes. With wits at an end, they head to the countryside to unwind for a weekend, never minding that they’re utterly ill equipped to deal with rural living. Along with the presence of Withnail’s Uncle Monty, and the possibility of a violent poacher, those are the film’s major plot points. In lieu of real plot, “Withnail” offers up two stellar leads in the forms of Richard E. Grant and Paul McGann, and the most infinitely quotable dialogue this side of “The Big Lebowski.” And it’s got a following the size of the Dude’s to match – although most of them are British.
Marwood: “Even a stopped clock tells the right time twice a day, and for once I'm inclined to believe Withnail is right. We are indeed drifting into the arena of the unwell.”
I’ve been a fanatic for this movie for over 15 years now. It’s in my Top Five, and I consider it my civic filmic duty to turn as many people on to it as possible, especially since it’s just barely a cult item here in the States. I’ve been pretty successful in my endeavors over the years, although I can’t give you hard figures as to whom, when and where. Even if it was just one person in my life, I’d feel good about it, because this is a film meant to be shared with people who need to see it. I don’t know if you’re one of those people, but I’ll do my best to convince you that you are.
Withnail: “You can stuff it up your arse for nothing, and fuck off while you’re doing it!"
“Withnail & I” is a situation, and anyone who’s ever been in an insufferable friendship can relate to it. Grant plays Withnail with a ferocious pomposity and Marwood (the “I” of the title) is played by McGann in the only way the yin to Withnail’s yang could be played: Quiet, reserved, thoughtful, and ready to explode in the possible moment where Withnail finally pushes him too far. And yet these two men need each other, because there isn’t anyone else. (As this film is hugely personal to me, I’ll man up – I’ve been both of these guys at different times in my life.) Their closest friend appears to be Danny (Ralph Brown), their wasted, burned out drug dealer. Brown achieved such cult status due to his two lengthy scenes in the movie that he recreated a version of the character for “Wayne’s World 2” via Del Preston. (Not sure how much of an endorsement that is, but it seemed worth throwing out there as a frame of reference.) Of Danny, Marwood – who’s never actually named in the movie, perhaps due to Withnail’s self-centeredness – pontificates in voiceover:
“The purveyor of rare herbs and prescribed chemicals is back. Will we never be set free?”
On the flip side, maybe we shouldn’t cut Marwood too much slack, as we never find out Withnail’s first name, since Marwood impersonally only calls him by his last name. And then there’s Uncle Monty, played by Richard Griffiths, who years later would go on to play Harry Potter’s nasty uncle, Vernon Dursley. Monty is not a nasty uncle. He’s incredibly sweet and yet delusionally living in his past. He’s also gay. Flaming. Like the two central figures, Monty was an actor once upon a time, yet he never amounted to anything. To talk much more about him would ruin some of the film’s only surprises, but suffice it to say, Uncle Monty is the wild card of “Withnail,” and the movie simply wouldn’t work without Griffiths’ hilarious, pitch-perfect performance.
Monty: Flowers are essentially tarts; prostitutes for the bees.
“Withnail & I” is achingly funny. It not only becomes funnier with each viewing, but it never actually ceases to be funny, regardless of how many times you absorb it. Like “Lebowski” years later, it rarely feels as if it’s being played for laughs. The humor arises from knowing, understanding and seeing where these people are coming from, and recognizing the situations they’ve gotten themselves into. Confession: The first time I saw it, I wasn’t terribly amused, but neither were a lot of people by “Lebowski.” I shouldn’t keep hammering the “Lebowski” parallels, as the two movies don’t really have that much in common, but even the relationship of Withnail and Marwood is comparable to that of Walter and the Dude, respectively. Here, though, the camaraderie (or the failure to embrace it) is front and center – it’s the focus of the picture. And the movie ends on notes of pathos. It’s poignant and real and has something to say about friendship between guys. Whatever that is, though, is entirely up to you to decipher. Now go forth, procure a copy of this Blu-ray, and “never attempt anything without the gloves.”
Withnail: “We want the finest wines available to humanity. We want them here, and we want them now!”
Bonus: A drinking game revolves around viewing “Withnail & I.” Check it out, but I wouldn’t recommend it for first-time viewers.
Single-Disc Blu-ray Review
You always want your favorite movies to blow you away on Blu-ray. On this disc, “Withnail” looks better than I’ve ever seen it look before, but that’s not saying much considering how many subpar presentations I’ve seen of it between VHS, Laserdisc and DVD. Even the Criterion disc that came out years ago felt off. The truth is, I’ve no idea how good “Withnail” could look. It’s entirely possible this disc is the pinnacle. The movie is mostly dirty and dark. The interior shots have always felt muddy and the weather of the exteriors (aside from maybe a half dozen shots) is perpetually overcast. This Blu-ray reflects that look, and it’s probably unreasonable to expect too much more. The sound, presented here in Uncompressed PCM Stereo, is likewise about what one would expect from a dialogue driven film with occasional bursts of music; both the outstanding score and the tunes from the likes of Jimi Hendrix and George Harrison, who also executive produced the film.
The real letdown of this disc is in the extras department, as there are none, bar the film’s trailer. A Blu-ray came out last year in Europe (with almost identical cover art) that featured two commentary tracks and a host of appealing featurettes. None of that’s here and it’s a major bummer for those of us who’ve stood by this film for ages. Apparently the U.S. market is never going to get a proper “Withnail” release, which, quite frankly, bewilders. It’s isn’t so much that we deserve better, but “Withnail & I” most certainly does. For the uninitiated, the disc is a steal for the price. If you’ve never seen it, likely none of the missing extras will matter, but you’re free to feel the same outrage over time. For the rest of us? You’ll buy it anyway, as you damn well better.