Just as its mercurial main character—a substance-abusing, self-destructive, yet gifted out-of-work actor—drags his roommate on a drunken romp through London and the English countryside, so Withnail and I exhausts viewers with rapid-fire dialogue and a volatile mixture of cinematic genres and literary tropes. Writer-director Bruce Robinson’s semi-autobiographical film gives late-’60s bohemian culture the farce treatment complete with sight gags and infectiously quotable repartee, but also tells a wrenching tale of personal and cultural disillusionment at the close of the decade that was supposed to change the world.
What other film has both found its way onto many best-of lists and also inspired a drinking game?
Unemployed, aspiring actor Withnail marks the time waiting for his big break by consuming as much alcohol, pills, weed, (and at one point lighter fluid) as his dole check allows. His unnamed roommate tries to keep pace, but lacks Withnail’s determinedly self-destructive bent. Like the decade itself, Withnail, whose 30th birthday approaches along with 1970, is running out of time. “I” suggests that he and Withnail head to Withnail’s uncle Monty’s cottage in Penrith (in the Lake District) for a holiday.
The two men prove incompetent at every facet of rural life, from making fire to preparing a chicken for the pot. They offend the local townsfolk, enrage livestock, and run afoul of a poacher. When Monty makes a surprise visit to the cottage and comes on to “I”, the holiday ends abruptly. The pair return to London where “I” finally gets his break, the lead in a play. He cleans up, gets a haircut, and leaves Withnail and their life of debauchery behind.
The film begins, as its title promises, as a narrative told from the perspective of “I”, who has ambitions of being a writer as well as an actor. Occasional voiceovers move the narrative along, but chiefly serve to reveal “I” as neurotic and conventional. His observations ramble and tend toward the clichéd—“Even a stopped clock tells the right time twice a day”—and herald his eventual surrender to conformity.
“I”’s first person narrative quickly becomes ironic, since no one’s personal story can contain Withnail. From his first appearance in his trademark Edwardian frock coat, spewing profanity and quips, railing at the world that refuses to appreciate and reward him, Withnail (Richard E. Grant in his first major role) owns the picture. Robinson starved Grant to gauntness for the role and with his pale blue eyes and pasty face, Grant’s Withnail looks ghastly, half-dead. Lazy, self-indulgent, a liar and a coward, but possessed of a horrid vitality, Withnail can’t help but fascinate. Beneath the bluster and inebriation lies wit and intellect, perhaps even a heart.
The ’80s produced a number of films set in the ’60s, in Britain and the US, but while many of them bask in nostalgia and VH1-ready bromides (1969 claims to document “The year the country split apart and a generation came together”), Withnail and I records the failed promise of genuine cultural transformation. The only thing that swings in Withnail’s London is the wrecking ball that smashes into a Camden Town block of row house as our heroes leave the city for the country.
The old order may be disintegrating, but nothing seems to be taking its place. “I”’s battered Jag with its missing headlight and single windshield wiper, navigating the foggy carriageway, looks like a prop from a post-apocalyptic film, while the disastrous holiday suggests that rural life offers no solace. The English countryside proves more inhospitable to the lads than London.
Yet the change of scenery does lead to resolution. Monty’s hilarious attempted seduction of “I”—like the headline of the paper “I” reads early in the film, “Love made up my mind… I had to became a woman”—offers sexual transgression (or the fear of it) as a factor motivating “I” to choose convention, and perhaps also the reason Withnail has descended into despair. The fictional alibi “I” concocts to ward off Monty’s advances—that he and Withnail have been faithful lovers for years—is calculated to play upon Monty’s sense of propriety. Nevertheless, “I”’s his assertion that he and Withnail have never spent a night apart in six years is probably true.
Here we’re in the realm of British schoolboy literature, of extended adolescent friendships like that shared by Charles Ryder and Sebastian Flyte in Brideshead Revisited, another tale of the twin pulls of conformity and self-destructiveness, though Robinson doesn’t share Evelyn Waugh’s reactionary view of homosexuality. Do Withnail’s feelings for his friend have a sexual dimension? “I” doesn’t stick around long enough for us to find out.
It falls to Uncle Monty (Richard Griffiths), who along with Danny the drug dealer (Ralph Brown) serves as the chorus and conscience of the film, to connect the personal arc of Withnail’s life to the somber turn the decade has taken. He observes to Withnail and “I”: “It is the most shattering experience of a young man’s life when he awakes and quite reasonably says to himself: I will never play the Dane. When that moment comes, one’s ambition ceases”.
In the film’s closing scene, Withnail, deserted by his friend, confronts the awakening presaged by Monty, and in reciting Hamlet’s “what a piece of work is a man” soliloquy, shows that he can play the Dane, that in fact, he is the Dane. Plagued by melancholy and indecision, unable to act on his ambitions and perhaps even his romantic longings, Withnail has nowhere to go as he trudges through Regent’s Park in the rain. While Robinson spared us Withnail’s demise (the first version of the script had him shooting himself with Monty’s shotgun, after pouring wine down the barrels), it seems unlikely he will make it to his thirtieth birthday.
Richard E. Grant DVD Crawl
If Withnail and I has given you a thirst for Richard E. Grant . . .
1.Chase his debut film with A Merry War (1997), featuring Grant as a Londoner who quits his job at an advertising firm to pursue his poetry, in the film adaptation of George Orwell’s Keep the Aspidistra Flying. If you’re still standing,
2. Quaff Portrait of a Lady (1996) and The Age of Innocence (1993), two other literary adaptations, this time around with Grant in smaller roles as a suitor and society prig, respectively. Next, lurch back to the bar and
3. Seek oblivion with the underrated Warlock (1989), starring Grant as a 17th-century time-travelling warlock slayer named Redferne. Upon waking the following day,
4. Doctor your hangover with some hair of the dog: Robinson’s How to Get Ahead in Advertising (1989), in which Grant grows a second head that takes over his body and his life (and speaks with the voice of Michael Caine).