VHS Revival revisits Bruce Robinson’s hilarious ode to fear and loathing.
Withnail and I is not only one of the finest British comedies ever put to celluloid, it is one of the most poignant of the entire genre.
It is the story of a scathing drunkard and his unfortunate sidekick; two out of work actors living in a squalid Georgian flat in Camden Town, London. The movie is set at the tail end of ‘the greatest decade in the history of mankind’ and as spaced-out drug dealer and uninvited frequenter Danny so aptly points out, ‘there’s gonna be a lot of refugees’.
As you can probably guess from the fact that I am already referencing dialogue less than a paragraph in, the movie is gloriously quotable, and the decade in question is the 1960s. Here we have reached the demise of the peace revolution. Woolworth’s are selling hippy wigs and those with dreams of living free are finally ready to feel bad about themselves. Withnail is the embodiment of freedom’s death and annihilation. Far from being a hippy, he is a bedraggled thespian with a taste for drug-fuelled self-destruction, and his whimsical candour squirms between drunkenness and desperation as he decries all and sundry about the pitiful situation he has begun to feel tragically comfortable with. Withnail is the kind of artist who raves about his capacity to be a star between every bloated hiccup. He struts into a quiet, elderly-ran cake shop and demands ‘the finest wines known to humanity’. He strops about his rancid abode looking for anything that might help him escape reality, settling for a swig of lighter fluid in his wild-eyed frenzy.
His partner in crime doesn’t have a name per se – although the name Marwood can be seen on a telegram he receives during the movie. The man known simply as I is caught in a desperate speed trap which he documents poetically in his diary. Instead of drying out and facing a life of everyday unfulfillment, he rides his friend’s coattails all the way to the local boozer, fretting over some homosexual graffiti in the lavatory and almost crumbling while watching grim locals eat fried egg sandwiches in a greasy cafe. The London they inhabit has no time for a couple of flash ponces like Withnail and I. Their tastes and aspirations do not fit the realities of their predicament. Their gaunt faces simply do not belong.
Withnail – We want the finest wines available to humanity. We want them here, and we want them now!
Broke and bored and unemployed, the two of them seek solace in Withnail’s flamboyant uncle, Monty, who agrees to loan them his cottage deep in the British countryside. Of course, the pair are just as inept and ill-fitting out in the sticks as they are in the unforgiving city, and although the air is cleaner and their environment less imposing, the pair are shackled to their own sense of injustice and a geographical solution quickly becomes more of the same, a frustration punctuated when Withnail calls out to the desolate valleys, standing like a useless god at the anonymous foot of creation.
Although extravagant in the eyes of the rest of us, their two man escapade remains largely pedestrian. That is until sexual deviant Monty joins them on their rural adventure, looking to busy his hands with exactly what Withnail had secretly promised him in return for his summer retreat: the loins of a grossly naive I.
Richard Griffiths is all thespian charm as the corpulent Monty, a man who masks his perverted desires beneath a poetic facade of empathy and understanding. A tragic figure lost in his own delusions, his aggressive sexual fires can only be extinguished by the sentiments his strangely romantic nature contrives to concoct. Monty is at once gentle and aggressive, frightening and tender; a character worthy of both our disgust and our sympathies, much like our leading men.
Uncle Monty – I adore you. Tell him if you must, I no longer care. I mean to have you even if it must be burglary.
Withnail and I is very much driven by its performances. What it lacks in plot it makes up for with its complexities of characterisation and pure, visceral comedy. The film’s central duo may spend their time boiling chickens and shooting fish barefoot in a stream. They perhaps do nothing more than booze and cuss and complain. But their performances are brimming with richness and poignancy, their futile and misguided quests built upon the sometimes hopeless fragility of the human condition.
We know nothing much about Withnail, but we sense his pain, and when his friend finally receives the career call they have both been waiting for, we see the fear beneath his scandalous facade. We sense that he is truly happy for his friend’s good fortune, but we see the sadness of being left behind by perhaps the only person who is willing to overlook his foibles. Throughout the film, the two are inseparable, bound by a predicament of abject poverty and desperation, but when the time comes one is ready to pursue the dreams that have for so long evaded him, while the other’s solace continues to lie in the bottle. I’s sudden departure is necessarily cold, and you feel that even if that same opportunity had come along for Withnail, he would perhaps have been too frightened to take it.
Withnail – You’re not leaving me in here alone. Those are the kind of windows faces look in at.
Withnail and I is full of wonderful performances from some of Britain’s finest actors, but Richard E. Grant steals the show as the petulant Withnail. His performance is one of career-defining magnitude, of acerbic delivery and hilarious theatrics, but also one of subtle strength and heart-rending self-pity. It is even more impressive when you consider that the actor has a medical condition that has rendered him teetotal, although the fact that his father was a violent alcoholic may go some way to explaining the accuracy of his portrayal.
The movie is a semi-autobiographical account of writer and director Bruce Robinson’s time flat-sharing with friend Vivienne MacKerrell, a tragic figure who Robinson described as ‘the funniest person he had ever met’. Withnail is based on MacKerrell, who like the film’s character actually drank lighter fluid in an attempt to get high and was blind for days after. McKerrell too, was a man of incessant self-aggrandising and wasted potential. After contracting throat cancer in his 40s, he would undergo a laryngectomy, and would resort to injecting alcohol directly into his stomach. He would die of pneumonia at the age of 50.
Withnail – The beauty of the world! The paragon of animals! And yet to me, what is this quintessence of dust?
Withnail and I ends with one of cinema’s most heartbreaking scenes, and is perhaps a fitting farewell to the man who the movie’s most memorable character is based upon. Unwanted at the station where his friend is set to depart for a new and better life, a drunken Withnail drinks from an open bottle in the pouring rain, and quoting Shakespeare’s Hamlet laments to the heavens, performing for an invisible audience that would continue to allude him, with a magnitude that both defies and encapsulates his fragile shell.
‘What a piece of work is a man!’ he decries. ‘How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an Angel! In apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world! The paragon of animals! And yet to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me; no, nor Woman neither; though by your smiling you seem to say so.’