Withnail and I

Written and directed by Bruce Robinson, 1986

Withnail and I is the tragicomic story of two unemployed actors struggling to survive in the London of 1969. Their dilapidated surroundings and constant drug abuse sees them “drifting into the arena of the unwell.” Desperate for a change of scenery, they holiday in a Cumbrian cottage owned by Withnail’s uncle Monty, which turns out to be a site with fresher air but equal squalor. And unbeknown to Marwood, he has been promised to Monty in exchange for the cottage.

It is the very definition of a cult film. Its fans are not as numerous as those of the Stars (Wars and Trek) but they are just as dedicated, and able to recite screeds of the endlessly-quotable script. They are known to make pilgrimages to Penrith to find the grotty little cottage; to find potatoes in the mud, and see the front door now bearing a plaque reading “Here Hare Here”. Many have even died playing the drinking game in which viewers match either of the title characters drink-for-drink. Well perhaps not died, but wished they had. Either way it is not recommended to drink as Withnail, who at one point resorts to downing a canister of lighter fluid.

Paul McGann and Richard E. Grant as "I" and Withnail

Richard Griffiths as Uncle Monty

Withnail and I may be classified as a comedy, but its strength comes from allowing the underlying poignancy to seep through. Withnail refuses roles which he considers beneath him, therefore failing to build a reputation and denying himself any work at all. In contrast, Marwood is grateful for any gig, eventually being offered the lead in a play after auditioning for a smaller part. The ending sees the two characters parting, presumably forever, as Marwood abandons – escapes? – Withnail to begin his career. The film concludes with Withnail swigging wine in the rain, quoting Hamlet to the wolves in the park. The sad thing is he’s actually pretty good, condemned to a life of poverty and alcoholism by his own stubborn pretension.

However, upon repeated viewing Monty is revealed to be the most sympathetic character. His homosexuality is intially a source of humour as he waxes lyrical about the virtue of the “firm, young carrot” over the geranium (“prostitutes for the bees”). By the end of the film he is a melancholic figure, attempting to seduce a horrified Marwood and eventually nobly admitting defeat. His is the loneliness of a man who has struggled to find love and acceptance throughout a long life. While Withnail is cursed by his own failings, Monty is the victim of society’s ills, the victim of a time when gay men were outlaws and outcasts. It seems a lot of people ignore this sad point while they’re quoting (admittedly great) lines about weird thumbs and fucked clocks.

Four and a half finest wines

3 Responses to “Withnail and I”

  1. i saw this last year and liked it. you forgot to rate this one?

    by the way if you’re into rating and cataloging your movies you might want to use criticker.com , it’s a really nice website :)

  2. Thanks for pointing that out, I’ve fixed it now.
    I keep thinking it would be a good idea to catalogue all the stuff I have, but half way through doing it I lose interest and start to hate myself!

  3. Great film! A modern classic (though it’s over 20 years old now. It just seems like yesterday I first saw it). If you’re interested there are plenty of pics of Richard from the film on the Withnail page of his site, including some behind-the-scenes stuff.

    Cheers

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