WITHNAIL AND I, 1987
Directed By Bruce Robinson
Starring Richard E. Grant, Paul McGann, Richard Griffiths, Ralph Brown
Review by Christopher Upton
Two unemployed actors tire of their impoverished surroundings in London and head off to a cottage in the countryside for a weekend of heavy drinking, drug abuse and fresh air. However uninhabitable conditions and a home invading uncle with deviant intentions quickly destroy their plans. Based on the life of the director Bruce Robinson.
The art world is full of people completely convinced the only reason they aren’t famous is because of some horrifying conspiracy, Withnail is such a person. Bruce Robinson based the character on someone he shared a house with in the Sixties, and the film is a mostly autobiographical account of their time together. Withnail was notable for being the first acting job for Richard E. Grant, who captured the drunken spirit of the titular character impressively considering he is a teetotaller.
Trapped in the squalor of his London flat with his long suffering flatmate, the thespian in Withnail itches to get out as it struggles against his alcohol dependency and his, unfortunately all too obvious, lack of talent. Living from week to week, surviving on benefit, the two actors feel the weight of busy London crushing down on them.
The two of them decide on a break and convince Withnail’s equally deluded actor of an uncle to lend them his cottage, a chance to reacquaint themselves with nature in order to rejuvenate and come back fully charged and better than ever. The problem is that what they mainly reacquaint themselves with is pills and enormous amounts of alcohol. In a sense it has a slapstick feel to it, the two of them trying to gather fuel, barter with a local farmer and fend off a bull are sort of a re-imagining of Laurel & Hardy- if they’d had access to a selection of fine wines and a courser grasp of the English language.
Then Uncle Monty turns up and the weekend takes on a much more threatening tone for Paul McGann’s Marwood (though he is never referred to by name in the film, he’s just ‘I’) who has managed to snare the affections of the rotund ex-thespian, much to his horror. The rest of the time at the cottage is spent desperately avoiding flimsily disguised advances and, at the extreme end, avoiding a buggering. Try as they might, they never managed to tackle that storyline in those old silent shorts. Richard Griffiths manages to inject a feeling of deviant menace into every flirting gesture or comment he makes to Marwood, every word is so lascivious and over acted; also a great reference to why the character of Monty never captured his much desired fame.
Over the course of the weekend the two friends start to pull further and further apart, possibly because of Withnail offering up Marwood in exchange for the cottage, and what starts off as a vacation quickly becomes a goodbye note to their friendship. There’s a definite sadness in the way that Withnail is outgrown. You can tell that director, Bruce Robinson, had a real affection for his friend and Paul McGann manages to convey both frustration and adulation towards Withnail effectively.
Clearly, both characters have a similar problem and their chemical dependencies are more than likely what is holding them back. The thing that separates them, and what allows Marwood to move on, is his recognition of his situation. Withnail is stuck within a trap he created and is far too ingrained now to escape. The character is trapped as the world moves on around him, a sign of the times for many towards the end of the decade.
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