There are many films that underperformed on their initial release, only to find an audience with subsequent home video or DVD releases. Bladerunner and The Thing are two such examples, as is another 80s movie...Withnail & I.
Released in 1987, Bruce Robinson’s Withnail & I made little impact at the box office, but over time has grown in reputation. Although little known outside Britain, the film has become a cult favourite on its home shores and on viewing it, this is not much of a surprise. It celebrates drinking, smoking, drug use and bullshit but above all, features endlessly quotable dialogue.
The story – such that it is – focusses on Withnail (Richard E. Grant in his film debut) and “I” (Paul McGann), two struggling, unemployed actors who decide to take a holiday from their squalid London flat to the countryside cottage owned by Withnail’s gay Uncle Monty (Richard Griffiths), who takes an immediate shine to I.
And that’s pretty much it for the plot. But the appeal of the movie lies in the interactions between the characters and some stellar performances, particularly Grant who steals every scene he is in (which is pretty much all of them). It is the kind of performance that comes along once a career and Grant is utterly iconic, a blend of erratic charisma and empty bluster that is the lynchpin of the film.
Bolstering Grant and some excellent, but more understated, work from McGann are great lines delivered in typically deadpan style, the comedy being all the more cutting from the fact the characters do not believe they are saying anything funny. “Don’t threaten ME with a dead fish!” Barks Withnail at one country poacher while drug dealer Danny (a superb Ralph Brown, who would later imitate this exact performance for Wayne’s World 2) points out that, “All hairdressers are in the employ of the government…”
Is Withnail & I overrated, though? Perhaps. Certainly, there are stretches of film lacking laughs and some scenes are weak (the forced comedy of the kitchen scene, for example). True adoration undoubtedly comes from being able to identify aspects of the lead characters and their situation in one’s own life where there are unlikely ambitions, few responsibilities, copious amounts of alcohol and no women (it is hardly surprising that students make up the most rabid fanbase for the movie). On top of this, it is successive viewings that are more rewarding than the first as each line becomes funnier.
Despite this, Withnail & I remains a singular, uncompromising comedy. With no gimmicks or action sequences, it rides on the old-fashioned values of a great scripts and top-drawer acting. Defiantly British and a deft blend of the tragic with the comic, this is a little gem of a movie that deserves a wider audience beyond the British Isles.
- Commentary with Paul McGann & Ralph Brown
- Commentary with Bruce Robinson
- Postcards From Penrith Featurette
- Bruce Robinson Interview
- Withnail and Us 1999 Documentary
- Behind the Scenes Stills
- Theatrical Trailer
- Withnail and I Film Score
Available on Blu-Ray from Umbrella Entertainment.