Withnail & I & I & I & I (DVD/ Blu-ray Comparison)

Here's a fairly colossal four-way comparison for you: Criterion, Anchor Bay, Image and Arrow. Yes, all these major players have at one time or another released England's cult British comedy Withnail and I, and I've got them all on hand. Not that I expect to surprise anyone about which is the preferable edition, at least not if you've been keeping up with the film's history on home video; but it's still a pretty interesting little journey, culminating in a relatively recent release worth looking into in its own right.
1987's Withnail & I is the directorial debut of Bruce Robinson, writer of The Killing Fields. Try to wrap your mind around what the writer of extremely heavy The Killing Fields would do with the premise of "a light comedy about two young, out of work actors who go to the country for a brief holiday."  And if you're thinking it would have to be something verbose, cynical, urbane, and bleak, then you've nailed it. It actually has a lot in common with The Killing Fields if you look strictly under the surface - superficially, they couldn't be further apart. Our two actors have run out of booze and convince Withnail's uncle to lend them the keys to his country cottage where they hope to refuel. They naturally wind up completely out of their element, and its a predictably comedy of culture shock in that regard; but it's all servicing an existential crisis, and another look at survival during cultural devastation amid a massive economic downturn.
Withnail & I has all the charms of a self-indulgent autobiographical nostalgia trip, but thanks to some excellent writing and performances, almost none of the usual drawbacks. It's the kind of film many young filmmakers have tried to create, but few if any of matched. It's like Clerks meets Metropolitan, and in fact both of those films were surely influenced by this one. The entire cast is spot on. Richard Grant made himself in this film, while Ralph Brown creates a wonderful comic character that would be over the top in a more typical stoner comedy without Robinson's brilliant speeches. Paul McGann is somewhat the thankless straight man to the madness around him, but he brings a strong reality to his character, and Richard Griffiths is just delightful. Robinson gives this film an attractive shadowy look you wouldn't expect for a film like this, and explodes the soundtrack with big music tracks by Jimi Hendrix and Al Bowlly. It's definitely a young man's movie, but if you're up for that, this is quite possibly the best.
This film saw its DVD debut courtesy of The Criterion Collection in 2001, which is pretty impressive. But the disc itself received a lot of justified flack for being non-anamorphic and interlaced. The word got out that fans should instead pick Anchor Bay's UK release, which had additional extras. But it wasn't any less interlaced or more anamorphic. That was eventually corrected when Image released Withnail & I on blu-ray in 2010, but that was barebones, not even carrying over any of the extras from the past editions. Finally this past year Arrow rolled into the game and decided to trump any and everyone who'd touched the film before.
Criterion DVD 1st, Ancor Bay DVD 2nd, Image blu-ray 3rd, Arrow blu-ray 4th.
Credit where it's due, Image did a respectable job upgrading from the old DVD releases. I mean, just correcting that interlacing was a big plus. But it looks DNR'd, or maybe it's just soft. Plus it's a little green. But Arrow went back to the original negative and gave it a brand new 2k scan (supervised by the cinematographer, Peter Hannan) which really opens your eyes. The detail, the richer colors, the natural film grain. I remember being pleased with the US blu in 2010; but I don't think I could be happy with anything less than this new Arrow presentation ever again. Impressive and definitive, Arrow's blu is Withnail done right.

It's also worth noting that Arrow's is cropped a little tighter to 1.85:1, whereas Image is full 16x9 at 1.78:1. The DVDs are at some weird, nebulous AR somewhere in between, at about 1.80:1. The most visible difference is that Arrow's blu has got more picture on the sides.

All the releases have basic, 2.0 mono audio - though both blus are naturally uncompressed - with only Anchor Bay's DVD also kicking in a 5.1 mix. On the other hand, all of the releases except Anchor Bay include English subtitles.
Criterion had a single, nice 22+ minute featurette entitled Withnail & Us, originally made for British TV. By and large it's quite good, telling the story of the film and interviewing most of the major players. it also gets a bit silly and possibly annoying, depending on your temperament, when they interview a group of teenage fans and get them to quote the film or share silly anecdotes. I definitely could've done without those parts, but overall it was quite worthwhile. Anchor Bay stepped it up by not only including that featurette, but also including an audio commentary by stars McGann and Brown, who engage in a brisk and informed chat throughout.

Image, as I said, has nothing.

Arrow again dominates, by not only bringing Withnail & Us back, but also three other British television pieces on Withnail made by the same people. One is a nice overview of Robinson's career, while another is a more skippable piece about making a drinking game out of the film. Arrow has also brought in Robinson for a commentary track, and then they made another audio commentary with a film critic, which isn't too dry. They also interview UK television writer Sam Bain about his memories of the film, which is a little extraneous but alright. And more interestingly, they also shot an interview with the film's production designer, Michael Pickwoad. The only thing they miss is Anchor Bay's actor commentary.

Criterion, Anchor Bay and Arrow's releases all include nice booklets with notes, and Criterion's even had a poster as well. Image... has nothing.
I should point out here, that Arrow has two versions of their recent blu-ray release. The one I've just described, and a 4-disc set. Disc 1 is the same, while disc 2 is a blu-ray of Bruce Robinson's subsequent film, How To Get Ahead In Advertising, also starring Richard Grant. That film really isn't as good as Withnail or The Killing Fields, but it certainly is an interesting curiosity piece with some value. If Withnail was self indulgence done right; Advertising feels like an example of everything wrong with it. Lovers of Withnail will surely get a kick out of watching it, but whether it's worth spending the extra money to keep it in your collection... well, I'll just say I got the single disc edition.

Discs 3 and 4 are just DVD copies of discs 1 and 2, for the record. Pre-orderers of Arrow's limited version, however, also had the opportunity to have their printed case personalized, which I think is a first.
Withnail & I isn't a mainstream film for everyone, but even those for whom it's not for would have to begrudgingly admit that many elements of it are quite good. And after some struggling, it's finally gotten a pretty ideal DVD and blu-ray release from Arrow. And if you're a serious fan, you might want to pick up a cheap Anchor Bay in addition, just for that extra commentary.

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