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Withnail and I: The Criterion Collection

Home Vision Entertainment

Starring Richard E. Grant and Paul McGann

Written and directed by Bruce Robinson

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Review by D. K. Holm                    

"SPACE BABE BONANZA!" shouts the cover of a recent issue of FHM, the inexplicably titled British men's magazine.

"PRETZEL SEX" promises the new Maxim.


"JULIANNE MOORE LIKES TO BE SCARED" reveals an issue of the British GQ over a nearly nude image of the actress.

These publications are representatives of a relatively recent genre called "lad's magazines." Their emphasis is generally on beer, soccer, voluptuous women, cars, bizarre sights around the world, movies, rock music, and a general interest in seediness of the sort late night television watchers are prone to indulge. Ladish magazines, with their emphasis on babes and booze, constitute one of the direct descendants of the 1986 movie Withnail and I.

Americans may not be so aware of it, but in England there is a major cult around Bruce Robinson's film. It's lines are quoted back at the screen by its devotees, who engage in multiple viewings, and the actors are subjected to spontaneous performances of its pithier aperçus shouted at them from passing cars and doorways, much the way the cast and creators of De Palma's Scarface are hailed by harsh lines from Oliver Stone's script. That Withnail and I is a cult is verified by a half-hour BBC feature on the topic, which appears on Criterion's DVD relase of the film. It's one of those cult titles that inspires either slavish devotion or baffled indifference. Americans may find a themselves greeting with a certain neutrality the lines that send British college students in hysterics, lines such as "My thumbs have gone weird," "I demand to have some booze now," "We've gone on holiday by mistake," and "Two quid. You can stick it up your ass and fuck off while you're doing it." Such may tickle the English ear more than the American. Still, in context they are awfully funny. You just have to love these unlovable characters.

Bruce Robinson's story, or non-story, is simple. Two struggling actors — the titular, unnamed narrator (Paul McGann) and Withnail (Richard E. Grant) — who are on a drinking, non-eating jag, decide to take some time off from their decrepit Camden Town apartment and enjoy the rejuvenating pleasures of the country. They borrow the rural shack of Withnail's libidinous gay uncle Monty (Richard Griffiths), but find that the cottage is in worse shape than their own home, there is no food, and the rain never ceases. In the end, they return — the narrator to find that he has won an acting job, Withnail to descend further into outrage and dissolution.

Withnail and I is more of a character study than a story, rooted in autobiography. Robinson lived in a grimy apartment with a crew of rogue hedonists. The "I" of the film is based both on Robinson himself and on a friend named Mickey Feast, while Withnail is based on Vivian MacKerrell, a not-very-aspiring actor now deceased (the included documentary contains home movie footage of these real life analogs.)

The question, however, is: Why Withnail? How did this film attract a cult? According to Richard Grant's diary, With Nails, the Withnail shoot was an unusually joyous one. The filmmakers knew they were on to something, but what was it exactly?

From its first images the film betrays a sureness of touch and tone. Grant and McGann work extremely well together; the photography, for a low budget film, is excellent; the succession of scenes have an emotional logic that makes the tale feel seamless. But most of all, the dissipation is recognizable. Perhaps there are not many Americans who have had friends or known a tight circle of mates who wallow ostentatiously in their low lives, but in a much more, shall we say, economically diverse country like England, one is more likely to meet people who try to make a virtue of their temporary low station in life. What has happened in the intervening years is that now there is a whole class of people, essentially slumming, who have taken the style and interests of the lower orders and turned them into a fashion statement. Tired of having to suppress your interest in soccer, beer, and large breasts and having to be "nice" around women? Well, just be yourself. There is strength in numbers. Withnail and I is the flagship event in this cultural revolution — the rather theatrical poverty of the characters appeals to youths who are bored with society at large.

Criterion has put together a striking package for their DVD release of Withnail and I. The letterboxed transfer (1.85:1) was supervised by cinematographer Peter Hannan, while audio is the original mono (Dolby Digital 1.0). The most significant supplement is the BBC's "Withnail & Us," produced in 1999. In addition, there are a gallery of photos by Ralph Steadman, the theatrical trailer, and inserts comprising an essay by Bruce Robinson and a poster by Ralph Steadman.

— D. K. Holm

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