Withnail & I, 1987.
Directed by Bruce Robinson.
Starring Richard E. Grant, Paul McGann, Richard Griffiths and Ralph Brown.
Withnail (Richard E. Grant) is an unsuccessful, pill-popping actor; ‘I,’ or Marwood (Paul McGann), is Withnail’s roommate and another equally underemployed actor. The time is 1969: Withnail is fast becoming a burned-out relic of the ’60s, while Marwood is trying to reassimilate into society. The two take a trip to the country in hopes of rejuvenating themselves, but things go from worse to even worse.
Only a select number of films can claim to have their own set of passionate cult followers. Star Wars and Star Trek have their legions of ever growing fan bases, no matter which period of history or selection of films or TV series said fans worship. Among the student fraternity in particular, Withnail & I is a film that has become a cult favourite over the years. By some die hard fans of the film, every line can be, and is worth being, quoted again and again. It’s launched quote-a-long screenings and drinking games. The adoration is clear, but is it justified?
Well yes. Absolutely. This month comes a plush re-issue with a restoration being made available on video on demand as well as a brand spanking new limited edition four disc Blu-ray set absolutely bloated with features (and also including director Bruce Robinson’s follow up film, How To Get Ahead In Advertising).
For me personally, my first discovery of Withnail & I was indeed during my student days. It seemed almost sacrilegious not to watch it, not just being a student, but in particular being a film student. Indeed I’d grown fed up of being told how great the film was and how I had to watch it. So I watched it. My first viewing left me somewhat underwhelmed. Such cult devotion, such hype. Lines repeatedly quoted at me before I’d even seen the thing. I went in expecting an ingenious comedy. I figured as such it would all be based upon physical humour, one liners and daft situations. There is that there, but that’s not entirely what makes Withnail & I a great comedy. It’s about character quirks and observation too. It’s got broad comedy, but it’s got subtle comedy too, and underlying beauty and tragedy in equal measure.
It’s a film that absolutely must be watched more than once, even if your first time leaves you cold. If you don’t like it by that point, you probably never will, but if it connects with you it stays with you and gets better and better with each subsequent viewing. So much so for me that it’s since become one of my favourite films of all time. Bruce Robinson’s film, based partially on his own life, and people he’s interacted with, is a simple tale. Not much particularly happens. A couple of unemployable bums go on a holiday (“by mistake”) There’s no great quest, not much complexity in the actual plot, but it’s about characters.
The two central characters Withnail (Richard E Grant) and I (Paul McGann) are two unemployed actors living in the squalor of their tatty Camden flat, “drifting into the arena of the unwell.” Withnail is lazy, snobbish and with a sense of self entitlement. Marwood (McGann, though he’s never referred to by name) is neurotic (exacerbated by drug use), drifting and consistently swept up in whatever plan formulates in Withnail’s head, yet in many ways the film initially sees Marwood somewhat reliant on Withnail even though their co-existence is ultimately to his own detriment. They’re two wonderfully crafted and fantastically played characters and the interaction between the two is excellent.
In terms of the side characters, their drug dealer friend Danny (Ralph Brown) is one who has become somewhat iconic for his look, his voice and many of his lines (and for good reason). However it’s Monty, Withnail’s reclusive gay uncle, who has a perverse and sometimes predatory infatuation for young men (and for Marwood in particular during the course of this film) who is the most interesting side character, if not the most interesting in the whole film. Constantly lost in regalia and recollections of his youth, Monty is a tragic character, who despite some of the more questionable tendencies as a character you can’t help but feel sympathy for. He’s also beautifully played by the late Richard Griffiths.
The film is also blessed with a pretty great soundtrack too. George Harrison produced the film so it naturally follows that one of the Beatles tracks he penned, While My Guitar Gently Weeps, is featured as well as a couple of Hendrix numbers too. In addition, the score from David Dundas and Rick Wentworth is wonderful.
Given I’m just about out of superlatives, I’ll wrap up by saying that Withnail & I remains one of the most unique and exquisitely made films to have been produced in the British Isles. Its cult following is fully warranted and if I get stranded on a desert island, it’s one of the films I hope I have with me.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★