WITHNAIL AND I, 1987
Starring Richard E. Grant, Paul McGann, Richard Griffiths, Ralph Brown
Two unemployed actors tire of their impoverished surroundings in London and head off to a cottage in the countryside for a weekend of heavy drinking, drug abuse and fresh air. However uninhabitable conditions and a home invading uncle with deviant intentions quickly destroy their plans. Based on the life of the director Bruce Robinson.
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The art world is full of people completely convinced the only reason they arenít famous is because of some horrifying conspiracy, Withnail is such a person. Bruce Robinson based the character on someone he shared a house with in the Sixties, and the film is a mostly autobiographical account of their time together. Withnail was notable for being the first acting job for Richard E. Grant, who captured the drunken spirit of the titular character impressively considering he is a teetotaller.
Trapped in the squalor of his London flat with his long suffering flatmate, the thespian in Withnail itches to get out as it struggles against his alcohol dependency and his, unfortunately all too obvious, lack of talent. Living from week to week, surviving on benefit, the two actors feel the weight of busy London crushing down on them.
Then Uncle Monty turns up and the weekend takes on a much more threatening tone for Paul McGannís Marwood (though he is never referred to by name in the film, heís just ĎIí) who has managed to snare the affections of the rotund ex-thespian, much to his horror. The rest of the time at the cottage is spent desperately avoiding flimsily disguised advances and, at the extreme end, avoiding a buggering. Try as they might, they never managed to tackle that storyline in those old silent shorts. Richard Griffiths manages to inject a feeling of deviant menace into every flirting gesture or comment he makes to Marwood, every word is so lascivious and over acted; also a great reference to why the character of Monty never captured his much desired fame.
Over the course of the weekend the two friends start to pull further and further apart, possibly because of Withnail offering up Marwood in exchange for the cottage, and what starts off as a vacation quickly becomes a goodbye note to their friendship. Thereís a definite sadness in the way that Withnail is outgrown. You can tell that director, Bruce Robinson, had a real affection for his friend and Paul McGann manages to convey both frustration and adulation towards Withnail effectively.
Clearly, both characters have a similar problem and their chemical dependencies are more than likely what is holding them back. The thing that separates them, and what allows Marwood to move on, is his recognition of his situation. Withnail is stuck within a trap he created and is far too ingrained now to escape. The character is trapped as the world moves on around him, a sign of the times for many towards the end of the decade.
However, that last passage makes it seem like this film was on a downer, and yes, while it has itís fatalistic final act itís a hilarious ride to get there. The fact that it has the downbeat ending makes it more realistic and is what has made it a classic- that and the fact that itís eminently quotable. That, more than anything, is what has kept the film alive for so long. Ask any fan and they can reel off lines to you, though most you canít say in polite conversation and the other half which are just strange.
Itís been referred to as a sort of Fear and Loathing: the English version, and while there are certainly crossovers, Withnail differs in that its story has a definite focus. And, while its characters lives are left open ended if you follow their courses through the film you can guess where they might end up going. The best thing to do though is to not worry about the future, is just sit back with the largest bottle of alcohol you can get hold of, or lighter fluid if none is available, and drink to these two despot actors their severely wretched weekend away.