Withnail & I
It surprises me that despite a Quote of the Day I haven’t really written about this classic cult movie.
Withnail & I really does seem to inhabit the underground. A lot of people haven’t heard of it, but those who have absolutely love it and will immediately be able to quote you some choice lines (more on that later.)
It’s a strange story, centering around two out of work actors in 1960s Camden Town (a very familiar area for me) based on the real life recollections of writer/director Bruce Robinson and housemate Vivian MacKerrell. There is no real explanation for our two protagonists predicament. The eponymous “I” is never named in the film, although he is often referred to as Marwood in other sources. We learn everything we need to know about the characters from their disjointed conversations and “I’s” paranoid internal monologues. The opening scene with the fantastic sax Whiter Shade of Pale really sets the scene and kicks off a fantastic soundtrack. Sparse though it is, the action is peppered with some classic tunes including Hendrix and The Beatles as well as some simple melancholic original music.
I think the reason Withnail has become such a cult hit is its portrayal of a completely un-glamourised bohemian lifestyle. The pair meander between drugs and alcohol (giving rise to the infamous drinking game), with neurotic “I” struggling to keep Withnail this side of sanity. The portrayal of Withnail by Richard E Grant is made all the more impressive by the fact that he is a teetotaler. In order for him to understand Withnail’s addled view of the universe, he famously got absolutely hammered on Vodka before filming began.
Paul McGann also shines as world-weary “I”. You get the feeling he’s been swept up in Withnail’s lifestyle but that also, unlike Withnail, there is hope of an escape for him. Ralph Brown’s Danny is also one of the most iconic characters I can think of. The only character I struggle with is the slightly too over the top Monty played by Richard Griffiths, but as he facilitates some great comedy moments we’ll let him off.
And while we’re on the subject of comedy, Withnail has quite possibly the funniest script I’ve ever heard. Nearly every line is a quotable classic, with some of my favourites including:
“We’ve gone on holiday by mistake.”
“What have you found?” “Matter.”
“How do we make it die?”
“If I spike you, you’ll know you’ve been spoken too.”
“This is a far superior drink to meths”
“There must and shall be aspirin”
and of course, “GET IN THE BACK OF THE VAN!”
(These being the selection with less colourful language…)
It’s both a very dark and very funny film, altenating effortlessly between the two. The fact that the story is, at least partly, true also adds to its tragedy. (SPOILERS IN THE NEXT PARAGRAPH).
The end of the film is beautifully pitched. As “I” sets off to begin his new career, shaven hair making him look like a completely different person and really hammering home that he doesn’t belong in this world anymore, Withnail is left in the park, quoting Hamlet to the wolves in the rain. It’s a brilliant moment. In the original novel, Withnail then returns home, filling the shotgun he stole from Monty with the remains of the wine, which he drinks from the barrel before killing himself. While the film doesn’t show this, you do get a sense that Withnail wont survive without his friend. The real life Withnail (MacKerell) also died young from throat cancer, allegedly from drinking lighter fluid.
(SPOILER-PHOBES SAFE NOW.)
Withnail & I is a brilliant film, well deserving of its cult status that really needs to be seen by a lot more people. It’s filled with British talent and really captures the enotion at the turn of one of the most famous and infamous decades. If you haven’t seen it, I strongly suggest you go out and buy it as soon as you can. Especially if, like me, you happen to live round Camden.