Starring: Richard E. Grant, Paul McGann, Richard Griffiths
Director: Bruce Robinson
Wouldn’t it be great to have been young in the Sixties? Maybe not, according to Withnail and I, which from its opening shots of Marwood (the “I” of the title, played by Paul McGann) coming down off an amphetamine high to the strains of King Curtis’ rendition of “A Whiter Shade of Pale”, strikes a mood of anxiety, melancholia and regret. Serving as a backdrop to Bruce Robinson’s autobiographical tale of two resting actors trying to get their heads straight, survive the cold and hopefully land an audition is a portrait of “the greatest decade in the history of mankind” winding down in paranoia and Dickensian squalor. The party’s well and truly over.
It’s a situation where nothing seems to matter – and that’s what makes everything seem so funny. The script embodies this aimlessness, moving through a series of free-flowing set-pieces – the sink full of “matter”; the visit from Danny the Dealer; drinks with Withnail’s gay Uncle Monty (Richard Griffiths), with a side-serving of camp metaphors (“I think a carrot infinitely more fascinating than the geranium”); an ill-conceived foray to Uncle Monty’s cottage in the country, where the duo encounter poachers and randy bulls and where Marwood fends off a pass from Uncle Monty with a line from Kind Hearts and Coronets: “I respect you for your sensibility, I thank you for it.” But you also notice how deftly and economically Robinson lays the groundwork for a split between Withnail and Marwood and for the final elegiac scenes, which are as movingly understated as any in British cinema.
Withnail and Marwood could be characters in a sitcom, and they have a certain circus clownish quality too, especially Withnail with his outlandish coat, his deathly pallor and his pompous, mock patrician airs. But they also cause a shiver of half-horrified, half-tender recognition, because they’re stuck in a state of being we all can relate to, where they’re uncertain of the future and of who they are … and yet they have each other, while the world of proper grown-ups with nine to five jobs is often a lonely place.
The film is as full of atmosphere as it is of jokes, and this aspect of the movie’s appeal is now even more apparent than ever before on this excellent 2K restoration. In the scene at the Mother Black Cap, it’s quite startling to see Withnail leaning over the bar and practically out of the screen at you, and the exteriors look outstandingly vibrant and present – Regent’s Park in the rain, the plump verdure of Penrith, the shine on Marwood’s leather coat. There’s just a little grain in a couple of isolated shots, but Uncle Monty’s tapestry-bedecked drawing room, the lamp-lit scenes at the cottage – all of these come up with a new richness of texture and hue.
It’s hard to think of a film of the ’80s that’s dated less in terms of sensibility, aesthetic and technique than Withnail and I. But whereas Withnail seems timeless, Robinson’s follow-up, How to Get Ahead in Advertising (1989) – also included inn this limited edition box set – is archetypally ’80s, with its braces, shoulderpads and green wellies and its attacks on yuppie culture. Grant is back, this time as Dennis Dimbleby Bagley, a stressed out ad exec who suffers a creative crisis over some acne gel and sprouts a boil which grows a face and starts talking, then competing for control of his body. Strangely, considering how note perfect he was with Withnail, Robinson seems to both overwrite and over-direct this frantic satire. The films hits some rather obvious targets and Bagley is aptly named because he’s more of a hold-all for Robinson’s views on the state of the nation than a coherent character with an inner life of his own. But the animatronic boil is great fun, and there are some sharp lines and very good bits, such as the sequence when Bagley goes around with a cardboard box on his head, or a quieter and more thoughtful scene where he visits a psychiatrist. Once again, we’re treated to a lovely transfer – there’s no grain and the cool lighting and décor look very immediate and natural.
Now for the matter of the extras. These include a quartet of lively documentaries originally aired on Channel 4 in 1999. The 25-minute Withnail and Us investigates the story’s autobiographical roots with the benefit of old home movies and comments from housemates. There are anecdotes about the casting (Grant, in very witty form, denies rumours he was put on a diet) and we learn that the producer, consternated at how darkly lit the rushes were, wanted to shut the movie down within the first few days. In a 38-minute profile, we see Bruce Robinson slurping red wine while hammering an IBM typewriter; he reviews his own career in typically honest and humorous fashion, detailing his problems on Jennifer 8 and with directors only too eager to rewrite his work.
Robinson returns for a fascinating audio commentary, in which he reveals that not only was there matter in his sink, there was a frog living in it as well, and that Withnail’s and Marwood’s stay in Uncle Monty’s cottage was based on a trip he made with actor Michael Feast. There’s also a second audio commentary with film critic Kevin Jackson, who mentions that Bill Nighy and Kenneth Branagh were both considered for the part of Withnail and that Withnail’s coat was bought by TV presenter Chris Evans.
In addition, there’s a 21-minute chat with production designer Michael Pickwoad, who tells a story about how, while scouring the Lake District for the cottage that would eventually appear in the movie, he actually discovered the real cottage Robinson had stayed in all those years before and the real farmer Parkin.