Sunday, 9 November 2014

Blu-ray Review: Withnail And I (Arrow Video)

"London is a country coming down from its trip. We are 91 days from the end of this decade, and there's going to be a lot of refugees".

It's 1969. The fag-end of a decade forever known as 'The Swinging Sixties'. In Bruce Robinson's feature debut, two out of work actors are living - make that existing - in a small flat in London's vibrant Camden Town. Withnail (Richard E. Grant) and Marwood (Paul McGann) stagger through life with booze, lighter fuel and pills playing an important part in their struggle against a system seemingly stacked against them. Worn down by squalid living conditions (self-inflicted, I might add), the pair are granted temporary respite when Withnail's Uncle Monty (the splendid Richard Griffiths) offers them the use of his country retreat. Upon arriving at this haven of solitude, our two would-be thespians find the countryside to be a hostile place, with unfriendly locals and wayward livestock forming a united front of oppression. Add to this the amorous attentions of a rampant Monty, and Withnail's assertion that "We've come on holiday by mistake" proves to be entirely prophetic as the film progresses.

The film itself is partly autobiographical, with Robinson using McGann's character to paint a picture of his own life in London, while Withnail was inspired by Vivian Mackerrell - a close friend of Robinson who died at an absurdly young age. Amazingly, WITHNAIL also marked the feature debut for Richard E. Grant, and is almost certainly the film he'll be remembered for. Grant is superb as the flamboyant Withnail; a cowardly, drunkard who places the arse of his friend in mortal danger in order to further enjoy a class distinction that is fast leaving him behind.
In the supplementary section, Robinson tells how he instructed Grant - a non-drinker - to get rat-arsed drunk so he would know how it felt to be under the influence and boy, did it work! This is probably the finest portrayal of a boozer in British cinema and on a par with Jeremy Irons' sad, inebriated figure in 'Brideshead Revisted' (cf to 'Dead Ringers'), though there's a lot more to this role than simply acting drunk. Witness the final scene where an emotional Withnail gives a magnificent reading of a soliloquy from 'Hamlet' to a pack of wolves in Regents Park Zoo. It's a supremely moving moment, and suggests that perhaps Withnail really does have it in him to progress in his chosen career. Of course, his friend Marwood seemed the more likely to secure gainful employment, but it's Withnail who possesses all the qualities needed if only he would just believe. Wide-eyed Marwood is a perfect foil to his exuberant friend being introverted, inexperienced in the art of life-and-how-to-live-it and capable of the most brilliant cutting humour : "I have just narrowly avoided having a buggering and come in here with the express intention of wishing the same on you". Thank God that Robinson relented and re-instated McGann after firing him.They do make for a marvellous double-act, but strong support is forthcoming from both Griffith and Ralph Brown who plays Danny; a wise fool with a hilarious knack of making utter nonsense seem profound.

Ultimately, I think many of us can identify with the two lead characters; particularly those who once had a dream and gradually realised that, maybe, things would probably not work out as they had hoped. And, there are many who will nod sadly at the moment the pair realise circumstances dictate that a longstanding friendship has come to an end. That golden moments will become memories that can never be repeated.

'Withnail And I' really is a film that improves as it ages, as we age along with it. Initial viewings doubtless set up Withnail and Marwood as drinking heroes for many of us who loved to go out and get hammered at the pub, but subsequent screenings show it's a film with many faces: love story, comedy, a snapshot of the end of an extraordinary decade that was both wonderful and terrible and a film ending with devastating loss. When Marwood walked away from his friend, you just know they will never see each other again; at least not in this life. Sad to say, that Marwood's next and final act in his friend's life will be at Withnail's funeral for he is destined to die an early, alcohol-ravaged death, just like Bruce Robinson's comrade all those years ago. Marwood escaped, as Bruce once did: a hard decision to make, and one that helps make the finale even sadder.
Lines of dialogue will be forever quoted from 'Withnail And I' and that's a major part of its appeal, but ultimately, it's a tale of a man who would never realise his dream but, for a short time, was truly happy. I think we can all raise a glass to that.

Arrow Video's Blu-ray features a wonderfully impressive restoration, courtesy of a 2K scan from the original camera negative. The difference between this and previous home video incarnations really is like night and day.
The contrast, skin tones, the squalor of that abominable kitchen, the different shades of countryside greenery are all captured minus the dirt and scratches of previous editions and there's a lovely layer of grain throughout; a labour of love no less.
The extras begin with two commentary tracks. The first is with director Bruce Robinson, moderated by Carl Daft and recorded in 2009. Robinson recalls tough times in his London abode - "God, how did we live through it?" - and using empty beer bottles as currency (4p per bottle). Bruce mentions Vivian McKerrell on several occasions, and clearly retains much fondness for his late friend: those of you yet to see Stephen Weeks' excellent 'Ghost Story' should remedy this post haste and enjoy Vivian's role in this film. Bruce explains how his film was funded; describes Richard Griffiths as "perfection"; relates how Michael Elphick arrived on set drunk as a Lord and admits he struggles to remember most of the critical reaction to his film. He also talks about the dialogue which has remained with people in a way that film dialogue so rarely does, and of the alternative ending he had in mind that would have been simply too cruel to use.

Kevin Jackson, author of the BFI modern classic 'Withnail And I', takes the microphone for another commentary track which was recorded in May 2014. Kevin reveals he actually had a Withnail in his own life at one point, and delivers an enjoyable, informative track, punctuated by his own laughter during many scenes. He comments on the fact there are few females in the cast (feeling, as Bruce does, that if you were poor, you didn't have a girlfriend back then) and of the director's decision to stick with his original ending. His admiration for the cast shines through on many occasions - labelling Uncle Monty "an immortal creation", and his enthusiasm and insight certainly compel one to seek out his book.

A quartet of television documentaries follow, which were part of Channel 4's 'Withnail And Us' weekend in 1999.
'Withnail And Us' runs for 25 minutes, and includes interviews with Bruce Robinson, Ralph Brown, home video footage featuring Bruce and Vivian, and input from fans and film critics who deliver their own favourite lines.
'The Peculiar Memories Of Bruce Robinson' is a 38 minute documentary, with interviews from Stephen Woolley, Nigel Floyd, David Puttnam, Andy Garcia and Roland Joffe who all pay tribute to Bruce's writing and directorial skills. The man himself is shown at work, chain-smoking and guzzling wine while he types - a process he describes as "hard and ugly" - and his thoughts on the creative process are mixed in with footage from the likes of 'Jennifer 8', 'The Killing Fields' and 'Fat Man And Little Boy'.
'I demand To Have Some Booze' is a 6 minute short where a bunch of students watch the film on video, pausing it during the alcoholic beverage scenes, and attempting to match their heroes, drink for drink. If you're in a benevolent mood, it's worth a view. Once.
'Withnail On The Pier' runs for 4 minutes, showing preparations for an open air seaside screening of 'Withnail And I'. Ralph Brown is on hand, as locals and tourists talk about one of their favourite films.

'An Appreciation By Sam Bain, co-creator of 'Peepshow' and 'Fresh Meat', is an 8 minute appreciation of the film which he calls a masterpiece and of Bruce Robinson's screenplay, "one of the best pieces of screenwriting ever". The extras are rounded off with a 21 minute interview with Michael Pickwoad, production designer, recorded in August 2014. Michael recalls going to the Lake District in his search for Bruce's vision of the cottage, and scouting for London locations. Fond memories of a production on which the Movie Gods smiled, resulting in a film where cast, crew and script reached perfection.

Those who purchase this release will surely be delighted by the inclusion of a very special extra feature: a Blu-ray incarnation of Bruce Roninson's 'How To Get Ahead In Advertising'. Richard E. Grant returns to play Dennis Bagley; a brilliant advertising exec who delivers an opening speech to his colleagues, expressing concern that the British public are slowly turning against commodities that are bad for them. With a stressful deadline looming, Bagley's brainstorming sessions concerning a pitch for spot removal cream are rudely thrown off course by the appearance of a large boil on his shoulder. When this distressing ailment spouts a face and starts talking, Bagley's life turns upside down, with madness and mayhem seriously affecting his wife Julia (Rachel Ward), and friends and business associates.

Just when you think things couldn't get any more chaotic, the surgeon's knife instigates a real sea change in Dennis' behaviour, resulting a another round of laugh-out-loud scenes. This really is an massively under-appreciated gem, with so many quotable lines of dialogue that it almost, but not quite, matches 'Withnail'. Grant is wonderful as the schizoid Bagley, with solid support from Rachel Ward, and Richard Wilson as the dry Sullivan Bristol. Highlights are many, but do look out for the scene where a demented Bagley clears a railway carriage, and a slow dance floor clinch where an outraged female flees from Bagley's clutches. following an obscene outburst from the boil: "The shagging starts in 30 minutes". Image quality is first-rate, with no blemishes (apart from the boil) and crisp detail.

The main feature is followed by a 10 minute Michael Pickwoad interview. Michael chats about the locations and remarks it was a much more straightforward production than 'Withnail'. The set is rounded off with a theatrical trailer.

Arrow's Blu-ray release is locked to Region B, and available to buy now, though I respectfully suggest you hurry to avoid the 'sold out' signs. Those of you who got in quickly may well have opted for the limited edition (2,000 copies) hardback book which contains new writing on the film and key articles/reviews, across 200 pages.
A very nice accompaniment to a film that at last enjoys the reverential treatment it deserves.

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