Review: Withnail & I (1987)

>> Friday, December 29, 2006

UK/C-108 m./Dir: Bruce Robinson/Wr: Bruce Robinson/Cast: Paul McGann (Marwood), Richard E. Grant (Withnail), Richard Griffiths (Uncle Monty), Ralph Brown (Danny)

Bruce Robinson wrote and directed this semi-autobiographical (hopefully more “semi” than “autobiographical”) cult film about two unemployed actors living in squalor and desperation in London at the end of the swinging Sixties. The story is told from the point of view of Marwood (Paul McGann), the “I” of the title, who represents the more sensible end of the duo. That is, when he’s not suffering from chemical-induced paranoia. Marwood shares an apartment with Withnail (Richard E Grant), a self-absorbed, overly-dramatic coward, who is much more interested in obtaining his latest buzz than procuring employment (think “Daffy Duck” with a British accent loaded on red wine and whiskey).

As the film begins, these lowlife thespians have reached a critical juncture. Their flat is cold and filthy; they suspect something may be living amongst the dirty dishes; and they are each near a state of nervous collapse. The situation is not helped by Withnail’s dire pronouncement--“I have some extremely distressing news,” he utters, draining a glass. “We’ve just run out of wine. What’re we going to do about it?” Since the prospects of their situation improving are not promising, the duo pay a visit to Withnail’s eccentric Uncle Monty, in order to hit up the rotund relative for a few stiff drinks and the use of his cottage for a restorative holiday. Unfortunately, Marwood and Withnail find that country life is no more restful than that in the city; and lacking food, firewood, and the necessary skills to survive off the land, starvation or hypothermia seem the likely outcomes.

I must admit that upon first viewing the charm of this cult comedy completely eluded me. The characters of Marwood and Withnail are so completely helpless and self-centered that I initially found them both distasteful and unsympathetic. However, after multiple viewings, I have to conclude that I missed the boat on this one. Withnail and I is a unique film that manages to wring dark comedy from an utterly sad slice of life. Robinson’s script is filled with witty, memorable dialog; and the performances of the three leads are brave and truthful.

Above all, Richard E. Grant should be singled out for special attention. Much of the success of the film is due to his outlandish performance as Withnail. It is impossible to imagine any other actor in the role, and in his capable hands, Withnail comes across as selfish, cowardly, pretentious, sad, droll, and unstable, yet somehow lovable. Amazingly, not only had Grant never acted in a feature film before; he had never gotten drunk prior to accepting the role. Bruce Robinson was more concerned about Grant’s lack of experience in front of a bar than his inexperience in front of the camera, so he insisted that the teetotaler go on a bender to research the part. Apparently, it was worthwhile, because Grant’s Withnail is one of the most memorable boozehounds in the annals of soused cinema history.

To sum it up, Withnail and I is subtle cocktail that tastes bitter at first but grows on you over time. It is an experience that should not be missed.

Drinks Consumed--Whiskey (Scotch and Irish), wine (sherry, red), beer, cider, gin, vodka (Bloody Mary), and lighter fluid

Intoxicating Effects--Slurred speech, staggering, stumbling, sneaking sips, boasting, swearing, vomiting, hangover, public disturbance, drunk driving, and arrest

Potent Quotables--WITHNAIL: We want the finest wines available to humanity. We want them here, and we want them now.

Video Availability--Withnail and I (Criterion Collection DVD) and (Image Blu-Ray)

Similarly Sauced Cinema--Bruce Robinson is set to write and direct The Rum Diary, the film adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s autobiographical novel, which will once again star Johnny Depp as Thompson’s alter ego.

Withnail & I: Everything You Ever Wanted To Know But Were Too Drunk To Ask (Paperback)
Withnail and I (Screenplay)
With Nails: The Film Diaries of Richard E. Grant


edP December 29, 2006 at 8:49 PM  

Pardon the expression, but you nailed it here:

"Withnail, is a self-absorbed, overly-dramatic coward, always in search of his latest buzz (think “Daffy Duck” with a British accent loaded on whiskey)."

We love the Daffy Ducks we see on the screen because we know there is a Daffy Duck lurking within us all.

Richard Atkinson January 6, 2007 at 7:00 AM  

At uni we used to play the game where you try and match the characters drink for drink (with the exception of the lighter fluid if you like).

Lots of... er... fun.

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I like to drink. I like to watch movies. I like to watch movies about drinking. I like to write about the movies I’ve watched, but only if I’ve had a drink first.

All text including the title "Booze Movies: The 100 Proof Film Guide" Copyright William T. Garver

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