The great American writer Charles Bukowski once wrote, "Frankly, I was horrified by life, at what a man had to do simply in order to eat, sleep, and keep himself clothed. So I stayed in bed and drank. When you drank the world was still out there, but for the moment it didn't have you by the throat." These could just as well be the words of one Withnail, the antiheroic actor trying to hold together his sense of self and time and the city in the 1969 London of Withnail & I. Writer-director Bruce Robinson's semi-autobiographical account of the waning days of youthful irresponsibility has itself become an eminently quotable cult film, one of the most memorable chiefly to recount boozing.
Like most movies about drink (frat movies excepted), Withnail & I doesn't glamorize alcohol consumption. Sure, it may seem like an ode to debauchery at first; from a safe distance, flatmates Withnail (Richard E. Grant in an indelible breakthrough performance) and "I," a.ka. Marwood (spot-on straight man Paul McGann) might vicariously seem heroic in their refusal to bend to conventional standards of sobriety, hygiene, employment, and self-respect. Anyone who's ever been on a bender will cheer to lines like Withnail's deadly serious "We've just run out of wine. What are we going to do about it?" And there's no denying the implicit appeal of surviving drunken exploits and having a ripping tale to tell about them, a historical rite of passage that has proved virtually unshakeable. But imagine actually living the life of Withnail (epic hangovers, consistent professional failure, speed-induced paraoia, and near-suicidal self-loathing) or "I" (trying to talk your flatmate out of drinking lighter fluid), and your buzz will quickly be harshed.
Both men are aspiring actors on the verge of thirty, men with nothing to show for themselves and who pass work, responsibility and other unpleasantries like hot potatoes; they are our shadows of selfishness. Their days are scheduled around drink and drugs, and their cynicism refined by disdain for the tabloid culture and prior generations, represented by Withnail's lascivious, gay Uncle Monty (Richard Griffiths of The History Boys and Harry Potter). Theirs is a tale from the counterculture, in which the boys reach a breaking point in their squalid Camden Town flat, abscond to Uncle Monty's country cottage, then return home, partly to a climactic run-in with the authorities. Of course, there is "no exit" from their disillusionment: the romance of a week in the country is quickly spoiled by seas of mud, crippling cold (they burn furniture for heat), a total ignorance of rural life (regarding a chicken, Withnail frets, "I'm starving. How can we make it die?"), and the unanticipated arrival of Uncle Monty, who quickly determines to have Marwood, even if he has to rape him.
Robinson knows the life of an actor (and the disconcerting advances of an older man, having been pursued by Franco Zeffirelli on the set of Romeo and Juliet); one of the funniest elements of Withnail & I is that it concerns three varieties of drama queen: the flamboyantly dark-minded Withnail; neurotic, ill-equipped Marwood, and the larger-than-life Monty. The comedy of Monty's perception of a love triangle amongst the three rotates to tragedy when we realize the depth of Withnail's need for Marwood. When Marwood suggests it may be time for him to grow up and leave their mutual life behind, Withnail hears it as the worst kind of threat. The only thing worse than Withnail's jealousy of Marwood's success is the thought of coping with life without a partner in failure. The fatalistic existentialism of the boys' plight is encapsulated in a seemingly innocuous exchange as they attempt, in blinding rain, to find Monty's cottage:
Withnail: Are we there?
Marwood: No, we're not. We're here.
Also encoded in Withnail & I's DNA is a theme expressed by Withnail, in Latin, to Monty: "Legium pro Britannia, or "A requiem for England." Its specificity is also universal: the world was about to wake up from the sixties. Drug dealer Danny (Ralph Brown) says as much: "London is a country coming down from its trip. We are ninety-one days from the end of this decade, and there's going to be a lot of refugees." Shortly thereafter, "I" has seemingly renounced his life of alcohol, drugs and long hair in order to embrace a job. Withnail & I feels authentically like a hilarious anecdote total retold in happily drunken company, which is victory enough. But it also locates the horrible feeling of facing the truth. Monty's view of the mess is optimistic: "There can be no true beauty without decay." But Withnail gets the last word in a Hamlet soliloquy exquisitely rendered by Grant: "What a piece of work is a man...and yet to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me; no, nor woman neither."
Though Image has given Withnail & I its Blu-ray debut on a single-layer, 25GB disc, the picture quality is better than any the film has seen on home video. The image is true to the source material: on the soft and flat side, with dull colors. But the hues seem accurate in this rendering and detail improves on the rather sorry-looking DVD put out by Criterion. The uncompressed Linear PCM 2.0 mix is certainly more than adequate; all around, this is probably as good as we can ever expect Withnail & I to look and sound in a home theater.
Criterion's DVD may pale in picture quality, but they still win in the category of bonus features. Image presents only the film's "Trailer" (1:26, SD), whereas Criterion included rare pre-production photos and the fine documentary "Withnail & Us" (while the UK Blu-ray includes, in PAL only, all of the above and tons more: an additional documentary, two interview segments, and two audio commentaries).
First-time adopters should snap up this nice-priced disc, and die-hard fans should strongly consider doing the same, given the image upgrade.
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