Until something else comes along, Withnail & I is my favourite film, and I can say that with (for me) unnerving confidence. It was not always so. If someone asked me for my favourite film, I’d usually fumble around my top ten or (if I was feeling really concise) my top five. But these days, Withnail & I is always there at the top, whenever the subject of favourite films comes around. It’s a film that I’ve seen in three figure numbers. It’s the film I wish I had written, or starred in. It’s the film I’d take with me to a desert island. Many people have The Shawshank Redemption, Mark Kermode has The Exorcist, I have Withnail & I.
Why is it great? Well, for the purposes of this entry I will explain.
Firstly, the basics. WIthnail & I is a beautifully filmed, brilliantly performed piece of cinema, with a script that is almost flawless. The plot itself sounds very simple; in fact putting it to words gives the image of a film in which nothing happens. Set in 1969 in a slummy, pre-capitalist bohemian Camden, two unemployed actors, rapidly approaching thirty, decide to leave London for a holiday in the countryside. Their vision of an idyllic, ‘Rousseaurian’ fortnight swiftly degenerates thanks to unfriendly locals, a cottage that is little more than a ruin and a lecherous Uncle (of whom more later).
If there is the hint of farce in that description you’d be right, but forget the traditional banana-skins-on-stairs-trousers-down pantomime farce. This isn’t Home Alone. Whilst the film is undoubtedly ambiguous in message (typified by it’s bittersweet ending), and can be read as being about beginnings or endings depending on your perspective, it cannot be denied that Withnail & I carries a heart of darkness. The film is tragi-comic, with humour based not on slapstick but on absurdity and wordplay. Both men are certainly Waiting, but for their next acting job rather than Godot. The film is full of imagery pertaining to beginnings and endings. In the opening scenes, we see a wrecking ball smashing into an old Victorian terrace, the bricks falling behind the characters as they drive away in a barely road legal Jaguar. Nineteen sixty-nine is not an arbitrary year; it is the ending of the sixties and the beginning of the seventies with all the unrest that would follow. Characters are often accidentally profound, making little speeches about their own personal circumstances but carrying sentiments loaded with far reaching implications. What ultimately makes the film tragic at times is how much foresight they possess.
This is very much a character film, and fortunately Withnail has three outstanding central characters, played to perfection by three outstanding actors. Richard E. Grant is the titular Withnail, a man you can practically smell through the screen; cheap gin, cigarettes and a tongue that could lick the rust off a railway line. Shambolically elegant but undoubtedly possessing some theatrical talent, Withnail is either drunk or hungover and about to be drunk again, a barely functioning alcoholic with a child-like selfishness.
Paul McGann is the ‘I’, referred to once in the film and henceforth in this article as Marwood. Marwood is introduced to us suffering from a speed-induced anxiety attack and his heartbeat (“like a fucked clock“) barely drops as the film continues. Constantly on the verge of a nervous breakdown (unsurprising considering the company he keeps), Marwood nevertheless is the closest we have to an anchor, a man despairing at the absurdity around him, frightened or confused by almost everything.
Lastly the late Richard Griffiths is Withnail’s Uncle Monty, the owner of the cottage to which Withnail and Marwood escape to, and it is a tribute to Griffith’s performance that he can generate sympathy for a character who, towards the end of the second act, almost commits a horrendous crime upon Marwood. Monty is arguably the most troubled soul in the film; an older man obsessed with love and sensations but homosexual, and so unable to have indulged in his passions openly. Monty carries an awful frustration of the unrealised; he’s an unrealised actor, an unrealised lover and an unrealised poet philosopher. All three men form a strange love triangle, albeit one that is not the traditional cycle of unrequite (A loves B who loves C who loves A.) In this film, Marwood is at the top and the others are looking up to him – Withnail looks to Marwood as a child would to a guardian, Monty looks to Marwood as a last hope to feel some kind of love (and quench his untapped lust.)
For all the darkness, the squalor and the self-destruction, it is worth remembering the comic part of this tragi-comedy. Withnail & I is laugh out loud funny. The dialogue is exquisitely sharp and delivered perfectly by all, even the weird supporting characters like Danny, the fried drug dealer who carries a small child’s doll full of pills. The situations the characters find themselves in are amusing; running from a riotous drunk in London or an equally riotous bull in a field, getting completely smashed and terrorising a tea room giving Withnail a chance to utter one of the film’s iconic lines “we want the finest wines available to humanity…!”.
Withnail & I is rightly regarded as one of the great British films, a cult masterpiece that people either haven’t heard of or (with one exception from experience) completely adore. It has plenty of rough edges, but then so do the characters, likewise with the setting. With all that said about why you may like it, I’ll now make this review a bit more personal.
I’ve always loved films with dark endings. For me, and despite the obvious hope for Marwood who does appear to be a man perfectly capable of functioning in society but held back by his care for Withnail, it is a bittersweet film in which (for me) the major theme is endings rather than beginnings. When Danny the dealer bemoans that the end of the sixties is marked by hippy wigs sold in Woolworths, he’s referring to the end of a way of life around feeling and experiences and envisioning a capitalist future of reproductions and falseness. Marwood, the great panicker, is strangely the forward thinker, willing to make drastic changes to his circumstances at the faintest whiff of realising his dream. Withnail doesn’t appear to learn from poor Monty’s example, and has condemned himself stubbornly to a rut by sticking to a principle of romantic entitlement.
All three main characters (and a few of the supporting cast) are essentially aesthetes who drown themselves in mind-altering substances out of frustration, nostalgia or simply blocking out grim reality. Marwood jots down notes of psuedo-poetry in his book and their apartment is decorated shabby-genteel, with Edwardian relics glinting fainly in the grime and pictures of old cultural icons in the kitchen. Withnail, in his long riding coat with a Harrow education, is someone caught between the old world (of Monty, with his anecdotes of punts, crumpets and endless passages of Baudelaire) and the new. It is no coincidence, I don’t think, that Shakespeare’s Hamlet, (about revenge upon an Uncle) is brought up frequently, including in Withnail’s powerful, bitter final monologue. To succeed, Withnail has to ‘kill’ the part of his uncle that represents the old way that he seems to want to cling to with his snobbery, and his lack of desire to sober up and *do* something.
I actually identify with Marwood and Withnail, moreso as I am now the same age as them. I’m a struggling writer – struggling not only to be published but to even get some words out these days. I frequently surround myself with distractions and images and wine, the better to forget for a few hours and float on a utopian mood of psychological invulnerability. I conjure pictures and stories in my mind but they are soon forgotten in the sobering crash. Uncle Monty often enters my mind when I am sitting in a pub and an old man or woman is telling me why they gave up some past dream so as to conform to a normal life. At the end of the film, Monty, Withnail and Marwood are the three stages of creativity – the regretful nostalgist wallowing in happy memories of hope rather than his miserable present, the stubborn enigma trying to do things their way so fuck the world, and the pragmatic realist.
I sympathise with them all. In the past, I’ve chucked an evening of writing out of the window for an evening of getting drunk and drowning in memory. I’ve tried to stick to my guns on certain aspects of How To Become A Writer, and whilst some of those guns are still intact, equally as many have been thrown aside ammo-less. Sometimes I genuinely worry that I’ll be like Monty one day – alone in a room surrounded by photos of people I don’t know anymore, trying to find solace in comfort zones, clinging to a sensation that they once gave me when I was thirty years younger but now are eroded as smooth as marble to have no feeling anymore. There’s a part of me that would’ve loved to keep the old Camden terraces. There’s a part of me that loves the new Camden moneyed bohemia. Ultimately, creative success can only be achieved by tipping the scales towards the latter.
I love this film.
I think you might too.