Pulling Focus: Withnail and I (1987)
“The best British comedy ever made? Possibly. A masterpiece? Unquestionably.”
– Ali Catterall, Film4
Where I’m calling from
From the tender and impassioned sound of King Curtis’ live recorded cover of Procul Harum’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale” in the opening scene to the finishing drizzly goodbye by the wolf enclosure in Regent’s Park, Withnail and I is a funny, affectionate, and wistful perfection from writer/director Bruce Robinson.
While Robinson has never been a prolific filmmaker and his following films so far have proven a tad unfulfilling by comparison, nothing can temper or depreciate the strikingly idiosyncratic pleasures of his coming out party, Withnail and I. A lamentably sentimental comic chronicle of impoverished living in late-1960s Camden Town, the Swinging Sixties as presented by Robinson is a booze-fuelled, bleak and grimy place of dreggy pubs, unkempt cafes, and offensively filthy kitchens.
“[Withnail and I] achieves a kind of transcendence in its gloom. It is uncompromisingly, sincerely, itself. It is not a lesson or a lecture, it is funny but in a consistent way that it earns, and it is unforgettably acted. Bruce Robinson saw such times, survived them and remembers them not with bitterness but fidelity. In Withnail, he creates one of the iconic figures in modern films. Most of us may have known someone like Withnail.”
– Roger Ebert
Right, you fucker, I’m going to do the washing up
Withnail and I ostensibly tells the semi-autobiographical tale of two down-at-heel out-of-work actors. There’s Marwood (Paul McGann), the “I” of the title, whom Robinson closely modelled after himself, a rather restless, hapless, and anxious young man, at least when we first find him. Then there’s Withnail (Richard E. Grant), the acerbic, theatrical, troublingly alcoholic best friend to Marwood.
From an upper-middle-class background, Withnail is a bit of a degenerate with a terrible work ethic, happy to slum and subsist while only vainly and sporadically looking for any kind of gainful employment as an actor (“I tell you, I’ve a fuck sight more talent than half the rubbish that gets on television––why can’t I get on television?” he bellyaches to Marwood).
For some time Marwood and Withnail have been spending their days gravitating between their broken-down cold-water flat, the unemployment office, and a number of messy pubs. At a certain point the lads come to the realization that they should “get out of it for a while” and sooner than Withnail can plagiarize a toast (“To a delightful weekend in the country!”), he’s convinced his gleefully gay and enjoyably eccentric uncle, Monty (Richard Griffiths) to lend him the key to his country house.
As the pair make it to the Lake District hoping to find rejuvenation in the English countryside what they find instead is torrential rain, shivering, a potentially dangerous poacher, a lack of rubber boots, and tedium ad nauseum.
“Adulthood. Responsibility. The meaning of friendship and the passing of time. Behind the boozing, these are some of the big themes Withnail and I deals with.”
– Tim Jonze, The Guardian
Cool your boots, man
Produced by George Harrison’s HandMade Films –– also responsible for Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979), Time Bandits (1981), and Mona Lisa (1986), amongst other avant-garde works at that time –– Withnail and I has since come to represent the quintessential British cult film. This is due primarily to its gaudy yet genial grab bag of eminently quotable dialogue, endearingly quirky characters, and a wonderfully weird mingle of social commentary and excessive farce.
“Alright, this is the plan. We get in there and get wrecked, then we’ll eat a pork pie, then we’ll drop a couple of Surmontil-50’s each. That means we’ll miss out Monday but come up smiling Tuesday morning.”
– Withnail (played by Richard E. Grant)
I demand to have some booze!
Grant’s Withnail is a goading, intoxicating bon viveur who, while occasionally uptight and often brusque, will do anything, and guzzle anything (“You’ve got antifreeze!”) to brighten and buoy up his and Marwood’s unfortunate state of affairs.
McGann is every bit as effective as the quieter and more heedful Marwood. Their drug-consuming, booze-imbibing antics don’t at first reveal themselves when the pair first visit Withnail’s burly uncle Monty who, after a short social call and a few rounds of sherry agrees to offer them his cottage for, presumably, their mental health.
While much of the cult constructed around Withnail and I celebrates Grant and McGann, Griffith’s florid, pitiable, and predatory old queen is also pretty amazing. As is Ralph Brown’s turn as Danny, their occasionally clueless and shoeless, drug dealer. In fact, it’s Danny who delivers one line in particular that may be at the very crux of what Withnail and I is all about when he intones: “They’re selling hippie wigs in Woolworths, man. The greatest decade in the history of mankind is over.”
This playful peanut gallery, which involves other assorted rogues, farmers, drunks, et. al., helps to articulate the highly quotable aspects of the film; Uncle Monty (“flowers are essentially tarts, prostitutes for the bees…”), Danny (“If I medicined you, you’d think a brain tumour was a birthday present…”), even an anxious traffic cop (“GET-IN-THE-BACK-OF-THE-VAN!”), each offer up multiple hilarious quips.
Lines like when Withnail and Marwood, several sheets to the wind at the Penrith Tea Room, pound at the aristocratic tables and create a scene as they slur; “We want the finest wines available to humanity, and we want them here and we want them now!” must have certainly contributed enormously to the infamous Withnail and I drinking game. This is a game where participants match Withnail drink for drink with deliberately disastrous results, and requires, amongst other essentials; ale, cider, gin, red wine, sherry, whiskey, and at least one enormous fatty (to represent Danny’s ingenious contribution to the chronic stoner pantheon, the “Camberwell Carrot”).
“Oh, my boys, my boys, we’re at the end of an age. We live in a land of weather forecasts and breakfasts that set in. Shat on by Tories, shovelled up by Labour. And here we are, we three, perhaps the last island of beauty in the world.”
– Uncle Monty (played by Richard Griffiths)
Listen, we’re bona fide, we’re not from London
For better or for worse Withnail and I is a one-off, an enjoyable irregularity, and more or less a capricious kink, its delineation of a story playing second fiddle to the witty, often side-splitting verbal and visual jokes that often run in quick succession throughout.
Yes, Marwood eventually sees the miscues and missteps of Withnail’s no-account ways, and yes, Marwood moves on towards the promise of a métier, having landed a conceivably long-term acting gig. But also and alas, the oh-so-slightly extravagant aggrandizement that grounds the tragicomic reminiscence rings so sincere.
The self-deprecating characters that populate Withnail and I, the very ones we celebrate, imitate and even mock, they remain amazingly real and fiercely relatable for anyone who has ever chased a dream, nursed a nasty hangover, or made themselves a promise they weren’t one-hundred percent on.
The film’s final fleeting images unravel as a rainy farewell in Regent’s Park at the wolf enclosure. Marwood and Withnail have said their goodbyes (“I shall miss you, Withnail.” “I shall miss you too, chin-chin.”), the rain somewhat masks the fact their eyes are wet. Withnail, alone with the wolves now, a bottle of Margaux from Monty’s cellar clasped in hand, recites verse from Hamlet with a growing yet half-seas over intensity. Once his abbreviated soliloquy is over Withnail takes a bow, and then walks away from us forever, and we lose him in the brume.
Author Bio: Shane Scott-Travis is a film critic, screenwriter, comic book author/illustrator and cineaste. Currently residing in Vancouver, Canada, Shane can often be found at the cinema, the dog park, or off in a corner someplace, paraphrasing Groucho Marx. Follow Shane on Twitter @ShaneScottravis.