Bruce Robinson’s most recent directorial effort may have been 1992’s thoroughly forgettable Andy Garcia-Uma Thurman mystery “Jennifer Eight,” but his first two projects, made in his native England during the ’80s, still enjoy a following. In the case of Robinson’s 1986 debut “Withnail & I,” it’s a particularly rabid following. Maybe one has to be English to really understand why. Withnail (Richard E. Grant) and “I” (Paul McGann) are struggling actors in late ’60s London who escape their grimy flat to go on holiday in the country. Alas, this holiday turn out to be anything but, for the country cottage turns out to be more of shack, and things are further complicated when Withnail’s uncle (Richard Griffiths), who owns the country house, arrives with designs on “I”. Plot obviously has little to do with the film’s cult status, for there is barely any; my best guess is that the characters and dialogue strike a certain chord. Yet while the screen is filled with good performances and eccentric types, only one (the acerbic Withnail, zestily played by Grant) made a truly indelible impression; and I found the dialogue sharp only in spots, with no lines being particularly quotable (perhaps that’s a result of the cultural divide).
Fortunately, Criterion’s DVD sheds some light on the “Withnail” phenomenon with the inclusion of “Withnail and Us,” a 25-minute documentary on the film’s legacy that aired on the BBC in 1999. Robinson, Grant, McGann and other principals recount insightful and amusing anecdotes about the making of the film (most interesting of all: Grant had never gotten drunk before playing his hard drinking character), and diehard “Withnail” fans weigh in with their favorite characters, moments, and lines; not being a fan of the film, it was particularly interesting to find out what scenes and pieces of dialogue are especially notable for fans. But the thing I found most interesting about this documentary was something unrelated to the film: the BBC’s odd standards as far as acceptable language. “F**k” and various other obscenities fly freely, but the word “c**t” is bleeped.
The inclusion of pre-production photos on the disc and a fold-out poster along with the standard in-case booklet do not compensate for the fact that the presentation of the film itself on the disc is a bit lacking. While the transfer was supervised by cinematographer Peter Hannan, the image looks dark and muddy; it certainly doesn’t help that it’s a non-anamorphic transfer. The disc also preserves the original mono soundtrack. The drab presentation is disappointing coming from Criterion, but it feels strangely appropriate for this rather monotonous film.
Specifications: 1.85:1 non-anamorphic widescreen; English Dolby Digital mono; English subtitles.