Tuesday 2 September 2014

Restoring Withnail

Like most fans of the film I know, I didn't see Withnail & I when it first opened. In 1987, at the age of 16, I spent an unhealthy amount of time in our local cinema seeing all manner of whatever was popular... Good Morning VietnamRoboCopWall Street, Beverly Hills Cop 2Lethal Weapon, The Untouchables, etc. On the plus side, I saw Full Metal Jacket the weekend it was released. Sadly, the same is also true of Revenge of the Nerds II: Nerds in Paradise. So one can deduce that at this point in my life I hadn't really adopted much in the way of critical faculties, and that my film tastes, such as they were, sat very comfortably in the mainstream. Okay, I saw Radio Days that year, but that's not exactly Sous le soleil de Satan... 

Anyway, I doubt very much I would have understood Withnail had I seen it during its initial (and no-doubt extremely limited) theatrical run in the States. (I can't even say for sure if it even played in Dallas, which is where I was living at the time.) Certainly the references, both stated and implied, would have sailed over my naïve 16-year-old head. It's quite possible that, barring the expletives, I wouldn't have even understood a good deal of what was said in the film; my tin ears being completely unattuned to regional English dialects back then. 

So I didn't discover the film until a few years later, when I was attending film school and soaking up all the strange, offbeat and “cult” cinema I could get my hands on. In the States, for better or worse, that's the category Withnail fell into – at least from a marketing perspective.  In all honesty, I didn't fully appreciate or understand Withnail when I first watched it (on VHS, naturally). Part of this was again, simple ignorance. I didn't understand the characters, the class issues, the politics (a film set at the end of the 1960s but very much a product of Thatcher's Britain), or just about anything else. Another part of was simple pretension on my part – like most other film students I knew, I was overly concerned with spectacle, bravura camera movement and the like, and took Truffaut's oft-cited dismissal of British cinema at face value (a thoroughly unjust criticism that took years of working first-hand in British cinema to wring out of my system) and this rather humble film about two young out-of-work actors drinking and talking their way through a weekend in the country just didn't tick enough boxes for me. 

What finally made me see the light was living in London, where I'd moved in 2000. Everything in the film – the anger, the humour and the pathos – suddenly struck a chord. Moving from New York to London had been a real eye-opener, with recently gentrified wealthy neighbourhoods standing only a few minutes’ walk from streets that still looked like bomb sites. My appreciation for the film only grew when I realised that one of the key locations for the film – the Mother Black Cap pub – was down the street from where I was living at the time. (The boozer was located in Camden in the film, but in reality it was based in Tavistock Crescent, Notting Hill. Sadly it's now gone.) At that time, the rapidly changing face of that London neighbourhood, with many of its older pubs standing derelict, seemed to me a natural extension of the destruction wreaked by the film's wrecking ball that smashes old London away as the two make their departure for Penrith. 

All of which is a long way of saying that, unlike most of the titles I rattled off in the opening paragraph, Withnail hasn't aged one jot. The rage and desperation that fuels the characters seems more prescient than ever. The performances are career-best from nearly everyone involved, with Richard Griffiths responsible for both the funniest and the most profoundly sad moments in the film. The direction by Bruce Robinson is spare, subtle and perfect. The photography by Peter Hannan masterly captures both the stark dreariness of the locales and the feelings within. The cold dampness of the Camden flat, the sallowness of undernourished skin, the redness of perpetually hungover eyes, the harsh, smoky blue expanse of the uninviting country landscape. Which isn't to say the whole thing isn't funny as hell as well.

There's little for me to say about Withnail that hasn't been better said by others, so I'll simply say that the job of restoring this film only made my own appreciation for it grow by leaps and bounds. As so many have only seen the film on video or TV, there's been a popular long-held assumption that the film was shot on 16mm, owing to its grainy, murky appearance on video. I'm happy to report that this is most definitely not the case, as Withnail was beautifully shot on 35mm by Peter Hannan, whose credits include The Meaning of Life, Insignificance, Dance with a Stranger and The Razor's Edge, as well as assistant work on Wake in Fright, Walkabout, Performance and 2001: A Space Odyssey. (I'd been fortunate to have worked with Peter a few years ago on the BFI Flipside double-bill of Duffer and Moon Over the Alley.)

As this restoration project allowed us access to scan the original camera negative, we were able to produce an image that improves substantially over any and all previous editions of Withnail in terms of sharpness, depth and detail, including the film's original theatrical release. Peter Hannan worked with us for several days overseeing the grade from start to finish, tweaking each shot to his rigid specifications so as to be exactly how he had first shot them. Peter revealed that a number of scenes had always been timed incorrectly during initial printing, making this scene too bright or another too yellow, etc., so this project provided him and us the opportunity to restore Withnail's colour palette back to what was always intended. 

Once grading was completed we restored the image back to its original glory, removing every speck, mark, wobble, frame jump and scratch that the original elements had acquired during their 27 years of storage. Once joined with its original soundtrack, the result is a fresh, new version of Withnail that emerges from its previous dusty, grey video incarnations with all its beautiful grain, details and original colours on full display. For the first time, watching Withnail, one really does feel what it was like to be in Penrith on that cold, wet weekend. 

Many thanks to Peter Hannan for the time and dedication he generously gave to helping us make this restoration of Withnail & I definitive. And thanks to everyone involved for confirming to me what a truly fantastic film it always was. 

James White, Head of Technical & Restoration, Arrow Films & Video

September 2014

To order your copy of Withnail & I today, just visit www.withnailfilm.com.

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