“We want the finest wines available to humanity. And we want the HERE and we want them NOW!”
Withnail & I is, without a doubt, my most quoted film of all time. Directed on a tiny budget of £1.1m, the film is now described as “one of Britain’s biggest cult films”, and for good reason: featuring the most original, offbeat script ever written, Bruce Robinson’s grubby black comedy is an iconic elegy to the end of the sixties – the end of an era.
The film follows two eloquent, unemployed actors and their booze-soaked foray into the English countryside. Withnail (Richard E Grant) and I (known only as Marwood through the screenplay, and played by actor Paul Mcgann) live in a squalid apartment in Camden town, London. It’s winter; they have no money and no food. Withnail covers himself in deep heat in an attempt to keep warm, and downs lighter fluid in an attempt to get high. After ‘two large gins, two pints of cider. Ice in the cider,” they decide that they need to escape the filth and cold of their flat for a weekend in the country, so contact Withnail’s plummy uncle, Monty (Richard Griffiths), for the loan of his cottage in the Lake District.
The film is based on director Bruce Robinson’s real-life friendship with Vivian MacKerrell, a sodden alcoholic and predominantly unemployed actor. They too both lived in a squalid student flat in Camden. Robinson says MacKerrel was “Jack of all but a master of none”, declaring himself a great actor, but doing nothing to prove this; and the funniest person he has ever met. In fact, a lot of the episodes in Withnail & I are drawn directly from Robinson’s experiences during this time: MacKerrel DID drink lighter fluid on one occasion. It caused him to go blind for several days, and, as Robinson thinks, may have contributed to his death from throat cancer at the age of 51.
True to his real-life counterpart, Withnail is without a doubt the more destructive of the two, hell bent on toying with death by consuming vast quantities of alcohol and chain-smoking cigarettes with a vengeance. He glares, rages and laments. To him, it seems that the world is conspiring to make his life a misery, and this has filled him with an unslakable fury. Conversely, Marwood has some kind of sense of order, amidst the booze and chaos: when Withnail demands antifreeze to drink after the lighter fluid, Marwood cries: “you should never mix your drinks!”; and when they are away in the country cottage, it is Marwood who goes out and looks for food and wood. And it is Marwood, who, in the end, as Robinson did, makes the decision to assimilate himself back into civilised society, leaving Withnail behind.
Grant’s performance throughout Withnail & I is pitch-perfect. Not once does he drop out of character, relent in rage of slip into a ‘comedy drunk’ act. In fact, he plays the furious alcoholic with such conviction, that if one were to meet him in real life, one would expect him to be just as ‘difficult.’ Not so, I’m told. Mcgann is also commendable for his performance as the angst-ridden ‘I’; whilst Richard Griffiths is a personal favourite as Uncle Monty: avoiding the more limp-wristed ‘gay man’ stereotypes of the era, he is deliciously flamboyant and self-effacing. He also delivers some of the more bizarre and most cherished lines in the film. In fact, it is precisely this that makes Withnail & I, a film that sounds rather depressing in its premise, so painfully funny: the dialogue. There is nothing quite like it in any film I have ever seen before or since.
Popular on the student circuit, many hear about this film through its notorious drinking game – you must drink what the two leads drink, when they drink it. Along with Danny the drug dealer, many see this film as a wastrel comedy, and perhaps overlook the films final, tragic scene: Withnail is left in the rain with a bottle of wine as Marwood leaves him for better things. It is a genuinely sad moment, and we really do feel sympathy for Withnail – abandoned by his drinking partner, and ‘spat out’ by the sixties. Yes, this film is about growing old, or growing more mature; facing up to responsibilities and the passing of time. It’s about what happens if you fail to do these things – you get left behind, as Withnail is. It’s also a downbeat conclusion the end of the sixties – that decade so associated with revolution and positive action. What we have is a mess: the era has left a trail of alcoholics and drug casualties behind; and, as Danny so eloquently concludes: “They’re selling hippie wigs in Woolworths, man. The greatest decade in the history of mankind is over. And as Presuming Ed here has so consistently pointed out, we have failed to paint it black.”