As part of an essay cycle that roves the cinema of the 1990s for vestiges of intelligent life, Phillip Lopate identifies several attributes that typify the early style of writer-turned-directors—creatively interpolated exposition, admirably ham-fisted mise-en-scène, and skewedly erudite characters among them. The blistering dyad of movies that British author Bruce Robinson produced with HandMade Films in the late ‘80s proudly manifests all of these, and adds one by way of aggressive underscoring: an acerbic worldview. One can’t blame Lopate for overlooking this quality, however, as there’s nothing in the debuts of David Mamet or Paul Schrader on par with Robinson’s reckless piss and vinegar. House of Games and Blue Collar possess a crafty bleakness, to be sure, but a modern fable wherein the body of an advertising exec is commandeered by a sentient, puss-dribbling shoulder boil suggests unprecedented vocational spite. As with both Mamet and Schrader, however, Robinson playfully uses film as a sensual extension of language (evens fans tend to praise his work as though it were illustrated dialogue); the lysergic scenarios and scene-nibbling actors make his wit appear so limitless that its targets are rendered defenseless.
Both Withnail and I and How to Get Ahead in Advertising are exemplars of the “hateful paean” tradition, salvos of social disgust filled uneasily with self-deprecating doubt. If 20-plus years on the former appears the weaker of the two, it’s only because de-glamorizing the trans-Atlantic boho-isms of the late ‘60s has already fallen in and out of style multiple times (our culture’s paradoxical reliance on—and lack of trust in—marketing, on the other hand, only continues to evolve and fester). Originally conceived as a novel, Withnail and I is Robinson’s “Fear and Loathing Through the English Country,” a burnt-out ode to both town and city faux-artistry squalor and a stoner bromance par excellence.
Two out of work thespians and flatmates in 1969, tired of London’s soot-stained, fish n’ chip paper urbanity, con a rich relative into offering the key to his cottage in Cumbria; what follows is a frenzied fog of booze-fueled betrayals and comic misunderstandings that eventually reveal to the duo the toxic nature of their dynamic. There are, curiously, few narcotics involved aside from alcohol (a substance so desperately sought that lighter fluid is gleefully imbibed in one scene) and an epic spliff rolled by a perpetually medicated cockney cohort, Danny (Ralph Brown). But, taking cues from idol Hunter S. Thompson, whose occasional illustrator/collaborator Ralph Steadman provided Withnail and I‘s promotional art, Robinson likens the demise of the Summer of Love to a bad drug trip, maintaining an achily inebriated cadence with paranoid voiceovers and a giddily episodic structure.
The film’s environment doesn’t demystify the hippie myth so much as bathe it in fatigued rancor until it becomes sympathetically believable; the Hendrix tracks on the soundtrack were easy-FM picks far before 1986, and the afro-sporting black he-man that appears in the bathtub during act three seems to have wandered in from an Off Broadway production of Hair. But rather than epitomizing the countercultural lifestyle of the era in extremis as, say, Raoul Duke and Dr. Gonzo did, the two titular characters here patrol its antsy, mournful, disillusioned limits.
Richard E. Grant’s celebrated performance as Withnail (pronounced “whith-null”) is beginning to show signs of vintage haut-camp as we gain distance from it; he savors pithily vulgar bon mots like “I’ve got a bastard behind the eyes” with enough oleaginous dramaturgy to give one indigestion in the middle of his or her splitting sides. And yet it’s the frothy whirlpool of Withnail’s pouty, egocentric over-reactions that draws us in as mercilessly as it does the uptight, unnamed protagonist and Robinson surrogate “I” (Paul McGann). This masochistic stranglehold provides the film’s most cogent metaphor for the self-destructiveness that may have ushered us into, as well as out of, the “revolution” of the 1960s.
In Cumbria, the unhappy couple bicker about whose turn it is to fetch firewood, upset the locals in a mostly fruitless search for non-fermented sustenance, and find themselves on the wrong end of a stunned eel who’s been docilely occupying a gruff poacher’s trousers. And through it all, they nervously roil from the realization that the country is just as putrid and unwholesome as the city they abandoned, an intermittently clever analogy for the unrecognized futility of the Age of Aquarius’s free love and corporeal experimentation. The story almost fatally swerves into dated socio-political cartoonishness when the brilliantly flaming and ruddily corpulent Uncle Monty (Richard Griffiths) arrives with plans to seduce the curly haired, boy-faced I; inspired by the reportedly untoward advances he suffered from Franco Zeffirelli as a struggling actor, Robinson unfairly fashions Monty as an appalling symbol of effete, closeted decadence and despondency.
The uncomfortable climax succeeds despite Monty’s unnecessary humiliation because of the nocuous, homoerotic tension that punctures the surface of Withnail and I’s relationship, a partnership that throughout the film we astoundingly accept at misshapen face value. Withnail’s charisma is such that we don’t even recognize him as a tragic hero until he hackishly spews a Hamlet soliloquy into the rain after I dumps him for the less risky compromises of adulthood and self-sufficient success. Withnail and I‘s satire occasionally collapses under the weight of its unkempt irascibility, but the conviction of Robinson’s ire toward a generation led astray is nigh unparalleled in Boomer culture.
British cinematographer Peter Hannan evokes both the putrid muck of the down-and-out-in-London lifestyle and the earthen outdoor unpleasantries of the Cumbria countryside with equal visual vehemence; the pale flesh tones are enveloped in such elegiac hues throughout that occasional splashes of color (Marwood's mauve scarf, Uncle Monty's yellow tie, the fading beige of the Jaguar's upholstery) feel like toast-worthy events. The Criterion Collection's standard DVD issue sported an appropriately hideous interlaced transfer, seemingly washed out with aging-Polaroid picture red and formatted for 4:3 aspect ratio TVs with black bars. The anamorphic widescreen, 1080p transfer from Image Entertainment more or less swaps the red imbalance for a sickly green, irritatingly smoothes out the film grain, and nothing more. Aside from a few instances where the additional clarity boosts the squalor (e.g., an early close-up of a grotesquely drippy egg sandwich), the new disc appears equally handicapped; watching it, one wants to agree with producer Denis O'Brien's contention that the movie was poorly lit. The soundtrack mournfully blares uncompressed period music (most notably King Curtis's live version of "A Whiter Shade of Pale").
None of Image Entertainment's current Handmade Films Blu-ray issues contain special features—not a huge loss, since Bruce Robinson has been reluctant to discuss Withnail and I and even the Criterion supplements were lackluster. There's no reason why more effort couldn't have been made to at least include the "Withnail and Us" documentary, however, or new interviews with the cast (how cluttered can Richard E. Grant's schedule really be?).
My promotional copy of the Blu-ray came with a spiffy Handmade Films beer glass. Withnail would have poured himself an ale, raised it on high, and ordered Image Entertainment to stuff this econo-line Blu-ray up their arses for nothing—and fuck off while they do it.