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Withnail & I (1986,UK)

30/09/2011

Director: Bruce Robinson    Starring: Richard E. Grant, Paul McGann, Richard Griffiths, Ralph Brown

In the book “With Nails”, Richard E. Grant provides some insight into his career as an actor, the book comprising largely of excerpts from diaries he kept whilst working on various films in the eighties and nineties. His journey as a professional actor begins in 1985 when writer/director Bruce Robinson cast him as the scurrilous, alcoholic, out of work actor Withnail in Withnail & I. The anecdotes in the book are tremendous and I thoroughly recommend it. It provides a wonderful insight into how Grant felt throughout the making of a film that would not only become a lasting legacy of cult success but also a stepping stone to a career as a professional actor.

Robinson’s semi-autobiographical film follows the fortunes of two ‘resting’ actors, Withnail (Grant) and Marwood (McGann, although he is never referred to by name in the film and is credited merely as “&I”) who have grown more than a little weary of their alcohol and drug fuelled lifestyle and abject failure to get any acting jobs and decide that they could do with escaping to the countryside in order to rejuvinate, courtesy of Withnail’s Uncle Monty (Griffiths) who happens to have a cottage in Penrith and is more than happy to grant them access to. It doesn’t take them long to realise that maybe, just maybe, a trip to the countryside wasn’t such a good idea…

It is an absolute masterpiece of filmmaking. Robinson’s script is drum tight, every line perfectly pitched. Gut bustingly funny, its comedy stems from the characters and the dismal situations they encounter rather than relying on specific jokes per se. The dialogue sears itself into your memory, making this one of those films that despite being endlessly quoted and referenced by people everywhere. This doesn’t diminish the humour for repeated viewings though, instead it seems to serve to make it funnier. As I rewatched this for the umpteenth time I was amused by how much of it I have incorporated into my everyday speech.

It’s also perfectly cast. Richard E. Grant simply is Withnail. I don’t believe there is a human being on this planet who can swear as brilliantly as Grant. A line like “Right you fucker! I’m going to do the washing up!” may or may not be inherently funny but by the time Grant’s processed it and delivered it, it’s a killer. Withnail is just a perfect symbiosis of character and actor, one of those casting decisions where they may well be better performers in the world but none who could fill that role so absolutely as the person cast. McGann is no amateur either. His performance as Marwood exudes anxiety from every pore, a blend of chemical comedown, perpetual hangover and genuine despair at the situation he has found himself in. He is clearly at odds with his current lifestyle of endless intoxication and squalor, one which Withnail appears to embrace wholeheartedly and in doing so becoming something of an albatross for his friend.

The two main supporting characters are just as deftly played. Griffith’s Uncle Monty, an old Etonian, himself a failed actor and borderline predatory homosexual is as memorable as any of the characters in the film. Griffith’s portrayal of him as a lonely old man, fuelled by fading memories elicits enough sympathy and shows enough vulnerability that he doesn’t come across as simply a devious predator. When Marwood rebuffs his amorous intentions it is impossible not to feel a little bit sorry for him. Monty also gets some of the best lines of the film, ripe with florid innuendo. Then there’s Ralph Brown’s drug dealer Danny, a now legendary persona that he semi-revived in Wayne’s World 2 and which succeeded in entering the phrase “Camberwell Carrot” into the global vernacular. His transformation is total, so much so that when you see Brown in something like Alien 3 or The Phantom Menace it takes a minute or two to connect him with this earlier work.

The story is so much more than a simple “fish out of water” tale about a couple of city lads who “go on holiday by mistake” to the countryside. Set in 1969, it is steeped in a sense of defeat. With the sixties drawing to a close flower power and free love have failed. The world is as dark and grim and hopeless as it ever was, maybe even more so. Withnail and Marwood (especially Marwood) are beginning to feel the strain of living their lives in a constant drink and drug fuelled haze. You get the idea that Withnail may well be resigned to this existence but Marwood believes there has to be a better way.

It’s worth noting that my latest viewing of the film was on blu ray and the transfer is marvellous. The detail of Michael Pickwoad’s extraordinary production design is beautifully picked out, clearing up the murkiness of the London flat and decaying cottage in which the majority of the action takes place. Withnail and Marwood look even more ill than they used to, every pale, sweaty moment of the hangovers that persistently threaten to overtake them emphasised in high definition. The disc is packed with features too, a couple of commentaries, the Withnail drinking game (not for the faint of heart or weak of liver), the amusing Swear-A-Thon and a bunch of other behind the scenes bits and pieces. It has been given the care and attention it deserves.

Don’t be put off Withnail & I by its status as a student staple. Intelligent, thought provoking and genuinely funny films like these are hard to come by, especially these days and it really has earned its legacy. I’ve seen it many times and will no doubt return to it many more, especially given the magnificence of the blu ray edition. In an age dominated by infantile, gross out comedies, Withnail & I shines like a beacon of hope for us all.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. 02/10/2011 05:39

    Great write up. I remember seeing the film when it first came out, but I didn’t really “get into it” at the time. It wasn’t until a few years after that I started to realise the beauty of it. It really is a fantastic film and has become one of my all-time favourites — and i’m not just saying that because I run Richard’s website.

    Unlike a lot of other fans I started to appreciate some of Richard’s more “irreverent” films before I revisited Withnail And I and saw the true genius of Bruce Robinson’ masterpiece.

    Regards,

    Cameron.

    • 02/10/2011 08:20

      Cameron, thanks for the comment, I’m glad you enjoyed my review. I absolutely love the film and have done for the last fifteen years or so. It’s just so subtle and witty despite what initially appears to be a rather crass concept.

      As I’m sure you are aware, Richard’s book With Nails is also excellent, funny, tragic and brimming with wonderful insights and observations about filmmaking. The chapter on Withnail & I is especially revealing.
      Thanks again for stopping by!

  2. 02/10/2011 22:39

    what i do love about this film is on one viewing its a very funny film, then on another view its comes across as such a sad story. I’ve seen it so many times, but depending on your mood it shows a different side, not many films do that so well. Nice one andy.

    • 02/10/2011 22:59

      As I understand it an original draft had Withnail shoot himself with the shotgun from the cottage at the end. It might have been in the original book? Not too sure on the provenance of that one… It is tragic. There is an air of desperation about it. You’re right though, it’s complex and shows different sides to you depending on how you want to read it that day.

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