Review by Katherine Follett
Posted on 05 February 2008
Source The Criterion Collection DVD
Withnail & I is a thin slip of a film, a low-budget, no-name British indie made in the late 80s, but its tiny cult following is rabid. I first saw the film with a few college friends who fancied themselves libertines. A friend had recommended it as the ultimate in debauched film, a “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” without the pretense of social importance. But after watching, most of my friends quickly dismissed it; it wasn’t nearly as over-the-top as they’d been led to believe. But something about the film tugged at me.
The second time I saw it was with a friend who had lived a marginal existence in a Bay-Area commune-slash-hovel. While he found the film funny, it was so close to home as to be hard to take. It seems that the real power of this film lies not in its extremism, but conversely in the way it sits just at the far edge of reality, the edge that is barely on the savable side of sanity. The craziness is kept in check so that the characters and their situation remain unsettlingly familiar, with a feeling of “there but for the grace of God go I.”
The film is the mostly autobiographical work of British writer/director Bruce Robinson. The plot isn’t much. The title characters are two out-of-work actors living in a squalid London flat in 1969. Withnail is a dramatic, flamboyant, witty alcoholic, while the unnamed “I” (called “Marwood” in the screenplay) is a bit more neurotic and sensitive. After deciding that they have entered “the arena of the unwell,” they persuade Withnail’s gay uncle Monty to loan them his country house for a week. The two travel to the drenched countryside, where they are totally unable to fend for themselves. Uncle Monty arrives unexpectedly, and after providing them with some necessities, sets about seducing Marwood, “even if it must be burglary!” After the traumatic week, the pair returns to find their drug dealer, Danny, squatting in their apartment. It seems that the squalid chaos of their lives will resume uninterrupted, until Marwood receives word that he has landed a part. Marwood departs, leaving Withnail to his sordid life.
It is not the events, but the wit and restraint of Robinson’s screenplay, along with the actors’ pitch-perfect performances, that really make this film. Almost every line is quotable, from Withnail’s overdramatic posturing (“I demand to have some booze!”) to Monty’s prancing (“As a youth, I used to weep in butcher shops.”) to the bizarre hilarity of Danny the drug dealer. (Ralph Brown reprised Danny’s languid, crazy-eyed character as the Ozzy roadie in Wayne’s World 2, the one who had to “beat them to deaf wif their own shoes.”) Danny is a ridiculous sage, having both the perspective and the utter incomprehension of someone so far gone that he sees every situation from the outside. Every character is completely memorable, down to the cop with only one line. (If you’ve seen the movie, you know which line.) But the film is more than a string of punch lines to recite to your stoned friends. This is a rare comedy in which both the situation and the dialogue are played entirely for laughs, but for the characters – with whom the audience remains entirely sympathetic – the story is not funny. The performances are utterly straight and photo-real throughout. Richard Grant’s Withnail is drunk and flailing, but not clownish. Marwood is paranoid and neurotic, but not pathetic. Monty is an obese dandy, but he earns our sympathy. You will laugh at this film either because you enjoy laughing at the misfortune of others, or because you’ve been there yourself and must laugh with a mix of familiarity and discomfort.
Much of the humor comes from the film’s famous affinity for alcohol. “We want the finest wines available to humanity!” Withnail slurs at a group of shocked pensioners in a country tea shop. “We want them here, and we want them now!”1 Withnail is still the fun kind of alcoholic—the kind that drinks so much because he loves to. Like all drunks with class, he’s a devotee and a connoisseur. Booze is still the best thing in the world, and the hangovers, the arrests, the fights and the mishaps are not the inevitable consequences, but the unpredictable detours of a great (mis)adventure. The beauty of the script and of Grant’s performance is that they allow Withnail to exist at just this stage of his addiction; they don’t lecture us with his inevitable VH1-esque gory decline. This is why some fans of the movie mistakenly see Withnail as the film’s Dionysian hero. But I believe the director intended, and effectively implies, Withnail’s eventual end. Robinson and Grant show incredible restraint by allowing Withnail his last moments of humor, charisma, and respectability before his character succumbs to his sad spiral of self-destruction. This becomes especially moving in the film’s final scene, one of almost archetypal strangeness and power.
The heart of the story is the unnamed “I,” the one whose paranoia ensures that the pair keeps at least one toe on the ground. In a DVD extra, actor Paul McGann described his character as “the little portion of your brain, that little sense, that gets you home when you’re out of your head.” Marwood spends much of the film trying to keep the situation, and his own head, under control, and usually failing. While Withnail is either blasé and drunk or self-important and drunk, Marwood is stoned, scrambling, and panicky. “I don’t feel good…” he says in the opening scenes. “My thumbs have gone weird! I’m in the middle of a bloody overdose… I feel dreadful. I feel really dreadful!” Withnail calmly lights another cigarette, countering, “So do I. So does everybody.” Only during a couple of moments (as they drive away from their flat, at the tea shop) does Marwood even seem to be having a good time. Yet he continues to follow and indulge his charismatic friend through every drunken catastrophe.
The movie would probably be obscure stoner fluff – hilarious, quotable stoner fluff – if it were simply a series of misadventures with nothing changed between the friends. But a turning point comes when ridiculous Uncle Monty arrives at the country home. At first, Monty seems to be an eccentric blessing, bringing them food, fuel, and a selection from his spectacular wine cellar. But his advances on Marwood become more and more aggressive. During the night, he bursts into Marwood’s room in a silk dressing gown and full makeup, demanding that Marwood give in to his (Marwood’s) latent homosexual urges. It seems that Withnail, hoping to convince Monty to loan them the house, told him that Marwood was gay. After narrowly averting buggery, Marwood finally confronts Withnail and his self-serving cowardice. “How dare you tell him I’m a toilet trader!” (“It was a tactical necessity,” mumbles Withnail, lighting up again.) “And how dare you tell him I love you. And how dare you tell him you rejected me!” Marwood’s worst anger is reserved for the suggestion that he is somehow enthralled with Withnail, both because it is a perfectly typical example of Withnail’s self-aggrandizing lies, and because it is partly true. His anger is an echo of Withnail’s first dialogue, when he spouts “How dare you”s at the suggestion that he might do the dishes. But Withnail is all performance, while Marwood damn well means it. Early on, some of Marwood’s voiceovers hinted that he was much more thoughtful and determined than his nervous exterior would indicate. Even as most of his brain went along with Withnail’s doomed joyride, Marwood had his own internal “little sense” that realized he had come to a critical juncture. This “little sense” seemed to speak to both Withnail and Marwood, initially motivating their impulse to get out of their rancid flat. But circumstances forced Marwood to confront this voice and follow it all the way out of his despondency, while Withnail drank his into submission.
When the pair returns to London to find Danny in one of their beds, they don’t bother to throw him out, instead opting to get high. Once again, Marwood starts to panic. But this time, as the composition slowly zooms in on his terrified face and cuts to the disintegrating chaos around him, the situation suddenly seems dire. It feels real. “I” knows he must get out now or never.
The next time we see Marwood, his appearance is startlingly different, clean-cut and ready for the part he won. Withnail, good breeding still intact, manages to stifle most of his wince as he offers his congratulations. He pulls out a bottle of “‘53 Margot. Best of the century!” for a celebratory drink. But Withnail doesn’t really want to celebrate Marwood’s accomplishment. Throughout the film, he has shown himself willing to sell his friend for even the most trivial gain. What Withnail really wants is for Marwood to stay, for something, anything to cling to to avoid confronting the idea that he might be a drunk and a failure. But Marwood refuses the drink, insisting that he has to catch his train.
Marwood finally leaves Withnail behind in Regent’s Park. There, alone and drunk in the pouring rain, Withnail delivers Act 2, Scene 2 of Hamlet to a pack of pacing wolves behind the fence of the London Zoo. It is perhaps the last, maybe even the only, good acting Withnail has ever done. This despair is the only true emotion Withnail has allowed himself to express through his haze of alcohol and melodrama. It only could be delivered now—now that it is too late, now that his career is in the toilet, his system is hopelessly hooked, and his last friend has left him behind. The film is, at heart, about the parting of friends. It is about the friend who gets out, and the friend who does not. There but for the grace of God go we.
1 Fun fact! Actor Richard E. Grant has an alcohol allergy and had never been intoxicated before playing Withnail. The director did get him drunk, once, in order to give him a little method background. Whether he would have been able to turn in such a hilariously believable performance without ever having had a drop is lost to history. ↩