Withnail and I (1987)
Available on Blu Ray from Arrow Films
A cult classic, of which there is a well-known if lethal drinking game tied to, Withnail and I is a very British comedy that still stands up today. It is really a coming of age story about two late twenties actors who have yet to stand up on their own legs and become productive members of society or to even land any roles which would qualify them as actors, as they are so fond of calling themselves. It’s the type of story that you would now more see in relation to teenagers taking the next big step in life. The film comes at the end of the swinging sixties in a London which is literally falling apart around the characters. The free loving and hippy lifestyles, of which the characters are barely grasping on to, are now becoming a thing of the past, the future of the seventies just around the corner. The film seems to have a sense of a dark foreboding, the sky constantly pouring down rain, the cold bitter and miserable, as if all the happy sun drenched times of the sixties are now over. The eponymous Withnail and I could be considered antiheroes, sometimes they are even downright unlikable, but they do possess a sense of silly charm about them, and they exude such a sense of being hard done by that it is difficult not to warm to them even if it is a little through a sense of pity. They are played wonderfully by Richard E Grant, again all lunacy with wild eyes with bags packed under them, and Paul McGann, as the hard living I who knows that it all can’t last and that he must reluctantly move on.
The film also interestingly posits juxtapositions of class, time and character. The two leads seem to hold their city lives as something above those who live in the country, almost looking down on farmers and people living in the country like they are barbaric and uneducated, but it is these people who are living off the land, making a living and ultimately looking after each other; the more civilised side to Withnail and I’s hard drinking, drugging and law breaking opposites. Withnail and I also seem to come from quite wealthy backgrounds, able to live in the city for the time being even if they are on the dole, something which is said to be like a badge of honour, whereas the people in the country, those that seem more of a working class, are fending for themselves, growing their own food and even providing some for those around them. The London that the film shows isn’t a glorious city full of happy, well to do people, it crumbles and looks grubby, whereas the countryside, though wet and occasionally miserable, does have its civility and it shows more of a truth than the façade that Withnail and I have attempted to keep living in London.
The main problem with Withnail and I is its complete lack of plot. It relies heavily on the goodwill and entertainment that is brought by its characters, and the performances of its leads, and though there is a lot of entertainment to be found, indeed it is that which keeps you through till the end, it is not enough and as the running time pushes past ninety minutes then it feels a little too self-indulged. Indeed, the film does sag at moments around the middle. Its attitude to homosexuality also now feels a little regressive but not to an extent where it would be considered outright offensive.
But these are just fairly small niggles in a wholly enjoyable film. Eminently quotable, it is a comedy film with enough laughs to keep you entertained through its slightly bloated running time, has a beady eye looking at the social and societal history of the time and with its ending, gives a bittersweet and melancholic push towards the future, its characters having to face up to the truth that the decade is over and it is time to move on.
This release from Arrow Films comes packed with extras spread over four discs and the picture and sound have been excellently cleaned up and tended to.