WFTB Score: 17/20
The plot: At the fag end of the ‘60s, two house-sharing, unemployed actors decide to get away from their troubles by taking a trip to the Lake District. The remote accommodation is sorted, courtesy of rich Uncle Monty; but the strings attached to the favour are too much for one of them to bear.
It’s 1969 in London’s Camden town and the outlook is not good for ‘resting’ actors Withnail (a cadaverous Richard E. Grant) and our narrator, who for argument’s sake we’ll call Marwood (Paul McGann). Sick of freezing and drinking themselves to death in their grotty digs, and wound up by the paranoia induced by Danny’s (Ralph Brown) dodgy drugs, the pair decide they need a break; but how can they get out of London whilst spending next to no money?
As luck would have it, Withnail’s rich Uncle Monty (Richard Griffith) has a tumbledown cottage in the Lake District, and Monty’s rather taken with young Marwood, which secures them the keys; however, when they arrive in Penrith, they find the experience is no less miserable than the squalor they left behind. The weather is awful, the cottage damp and cold, the locals unfriendly or downright threatening, and readily edible food hard to come by. When Monty arrives unexpectedly, he brings money, food and fine wine to the desperate actors; on the other hand, his aggressive pursuit of Marwood brings a whole new set of complications to the needy – but not that needy – young men.
Reviewing films frequently leads you from the sublime to the ridiculous, or in this case vice versa. For, having spent a dismal ninety minutes on Mr Bean’s Holiday, I watched this film immediately afterwards – and what a relief it was to be back in a land where script, character, story and themes all had a place on the screen. It’s worth commenting on each. The script has all the sharp writing of a play, peppered as it is with imaginative swearing and inspired, frayed lunacy: ‘How can we make it die?’, ‘You can’t threaten me with a dead fish’, ‘Why have you drugged their onions?’ and my all-time favourite, ‘We’ve gone on holiday by mistake!’ (There’s also the brilliant follow-up to Withnail’s ‘Are you the farmer?’ which I won’t repeat here for modesty’s sake). Withnail and I is easily, endlessly quotable for anyone who has found themselves way out of their comfort zone, in a spectacularly louche mood, hung over beyond tolerance or any combination of the above.
The script, helped by uniformly superb performances, creates unforgettable characters. Grant’s monstrous, selfish, cowardly yet altogether magnificent Withnail is obviously head of these, but he’s by no means alone. Griffith in particular invests Monty – aggressive bugger though he is – with a tragic, almost childish sensibility; and Danny is a wonderful creation in Brown’s hands, with his semi-comatose delivery and thousand-yard stare lending credibility to his crazy ideas. If Marwood is bland by comparison, it’s surely a deliberate and necessary move; his anxiety and relative normality is the viewer’s insight into an otherwise bizarre and alien world.
The story, coming from Robinson’s own experiences, is a unique amalgam of period piece, road trip and long day’s journey into night (in a beaten-up Jag). It’s funny, tense, tender, and occasionally creepy; ultimately, it’s the tale of friends, one of whom needs the other but, even on the borders of depravity, is too proud to admit it. When the friendship has to come to an end, it’s a tragedy that literally takes on Shakespearean dimensions.
More than that, and this is where the theme comes in, it represents the end of a decade that started with new ideas and music, and appeared to offer endless possibilities, yet finished with drug dependency, burnout and decay: “They’re selling hippy wigs in Woolworths” laments Danny, ruefully acknowledging that the dream is over. So when Withnail/Grant bursts into his speech from Hamlet, its connotations are both individual and universal and the scene forms an almost perfect moment of pathos.
If it were merely well played, written and so on, Withnail and I would be a really good film, but perhaps too short on content to be thought of as really great. The details bring it to greatness: the costumes and set design, which are utterly convincing – at no time do you ever believe you’re anywhere but the 60s – and make it all too easy to forget that the film was actually made in a time of Ford Sierras and compact discs. It’s topped off by its powerful, evocative soundtrack, starting with King Curtis’ wonderful live arrangement of A Whiter Shade of Pale and boosted further by Hendrix’ magical version of Dylan’s All Along the Watchtower.
There are Withnail deniers out there, and I’d readily admit that the film isn’t shot with great panache; though it has to be largely intentional, it does have that dreary, grey Handmade (pun intended) look of Britain on a particularly dull day. To be completely honest, there are small stretches in the gloomy bed-hopping middle section that I could do without, if I were to watch the film ten times in a row; but I set that statement against the fact that I’d gladly watch most of it on a near-continuous loop. If you’ve seen Withnail and I, you’ve probably made up your mind already. If not, seek it out for, amongst other things, its wonderful use of language, some superb acting and British cinema’s defining anti-hero.