Oomska takes a fond look back at the film that gave our site its title: Bruce Robinson’s ‘Withnail & I’.
Forget Ealing Comedies and Kitchen Sink Dramas, ‘Withnail and I’ is the quintessential British film. Truly unique, impossible to adequately describe, in a sense it’s an English ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas’, with a dash of Gustave Flaubert’s ‘Bouvard and Pecuchet’. The largely irrelevant plot follows a few fraught days in the bibulous lives of two unemployed actors living in bohemian squalor in London at the tail end of the 1960s. Borrowing a cottage in the Lake District in an attempt to rejuvenate, they find that they’ve “gone on holiday by mistake”. The idyllic rural retreat turns out to be a “horrible little shack”, they have trouble with the menacing locals, and their problems culminate in the arrival of the cottage’s owner, Withnail’s Uncle Monty (a career-making performance from Richard Griffiths), in hot and unwelcome homosexual pursuit of the resolutely heterosexual Marwood (the titular ‘I’).
As quotable as Shakespeare, funnier than Monty Python, sadder than Shelley’s Adonais, writer-director Bruce Robinson’s script is a work of literary genius: resonant and evocative as a great novel, and obviously revelling in the richness of the English language. The pyrotechnical brilliance of Richard E Grant’s Withnail threatens to overshadow Paul McGann’s lower-key portrayal of Marwood, but both performances are equally accomplished, and both men are more than capable of transmitting Robinson’s mastery of idiom, nuance, and laconic inflection. McGann’s ability to exude nerviness is wonderful, the solemnity he imparts to key lines such as “I’ve been called a ponce” an unfailing delight. For his part, the sense of bitter dissatisfaction with an endlessly inadequate world and tragically disappointing life that Grant gets into Withnail’s line, “How could I possibly know what we should do? What should we do?,” is phenomenal.
Although it’s often thought of as a druggy film, there are actually remarkably few drugs consumed, both characters much preferring a continual supply of alcohol. And while the death of the decade is lamented – “they’re selling hippy wigs in Woolworth’s, man” – theirs is a 1960s which is conspicuously lacking in benign psychedelia or flower children, instead featuring belligerent, terror-instilling ‘wankers’ in the pubs and freak-out inducing nicotine-haired hags in the grim greasy spoon cafes. In any case, the end of a historical and cultural era is much less thematically important than the coincidental break-up of Marwood and Withnail’s intense but fragile friendship. Similarly, the era in which the film was made, the 1980s, and the ways in which that horrendous decade made a mockery of the progressive spirit of the Sixties, intrudes only occasionally: Robinson couldn’t resist, for example, slipping in a reference to Margaret Thatcher’s constituency of Finchley as an “accident black spot”.
Caught on opposing sides of the fine line separating vague artistic ambitions from the wherewithal to actually get something done, the friends are pulled by a combination of character and luck in directions which could respectively be signposted ‘Up’ and ‘Down’. The posh but penurious Withnail – given to glugging down lighter fluid and using matchsticks to apply glue to the soles of his shoes – is clearly never going to shake off his extended adolescence, hedonistically protesting that “there’s always time for a drink,” whereas Marwood realized long ago that the party’s well and truly over. But in saying goodbye to Withnail, Marwood is also leaving behind a part of himself. And he’s left with the unshakable feeling that it was only by dint of having managed to summon the impetus (not to mention having had quite a significant bit of good luck), that he’s been able to just barely break free from the gravity of dissipation and despair. In a way, it’s a warning to those of us with hedonistic impulses, that while we might think we’ll be able to act like a Marwood and get away with it, it only takes one tiny gradation of fate’s wheel to doom us to being a Withnail.
Having on its release had a commercial impact in almost totally inverse proportion to its value as a cultural artefact, ‘Withnail & I’ became a massive word-of-mouth cult on video, and for long-time Withnail fans used to watching murky VHS tapes, viewing the cleaned-up film on today’s DVD (or, even, Blu-Ray) technology is like sobering up without a hangover, though some may miss the murk which so suited what Robinson, in his informative, anecdotal and entertaining DVD commentary track, calls the film’s “sense of particularly English hopelessness”, a spiritual kin to Tony Hancock. The black comedy on display here is not so much ‘gallows humour’ as ‘waiting for a bus on Sunday in the rain humour’. Indeed, this film could only have been written by an Englishman, and one with a nuanced understanding of class and all its insidious manifestations, at that.
Because the film is so quotable, it inevitably is quoted, and the more cultish aspects which have accreted around it over the years – the drearily inevitable drinking games and endless talking head documentaries featuring cringe-making interviews with C-list celebrities – will always be painful for anyone who loves the film. But it’s a testament to the strength of Withnail & I’s enduring brilliance that it can remain unwithered by that sort of thing. This is a film which ought to be included in one of those capsules they fire out into space to exemplify human civilisation. Cherish it. Raise a glass to it. As Withnail would say, so long as someone else was paying for the drinks: “Chin-chin.”
- by John Carvill
Editors note: some parts of this article first appeared, in a slightly different form, in Popmatters, June 2007.