Withnail and I (1987)

“I’m a trained actor reduced to the status of a bum!”

Directed by: Bruce Robinson Starring: Richard E. Grant, Paul McGann, Richard Griffiths In a Nutshell: Withnail and I is a bleakly funny and surprisingly poignant tale about a waning friendship at the arse-end of the 1960s. Off the back of an Oscar nomination for his screenplay for The Killing Fields, Bruce Robinson directed his labour of love, loosely based on his own experience as a struggling actor and his friendship with the foppish, alcoholic, terminally unemployed thespian, Vivian MacKerell. The film barely made its money back at the box office, but within a decade it had built a dedicated cult following, largely among British students who tuned into the despairing, highly quotable dialogue and found kinship with its impoverished, booze-and-drug fuelled protagonists. It also inspired a legendary drinking game where viewers were required to imbibe the same amount of alcohol as the characters on screen. Withnail and I has enjoyed a renaissance as one of Britain’s greatest films, and Richard E. Grant’s performance as Withnail is a cult icon.
The Plot: Two unemployed actors, Withnail (Grant) and “I”, aka Marwood (McGann), emerge from the depths of a lengthy drug-and-alcohol induced stupor and decide they’re sick of slumming around in their squalid London flat. They borrow the keys for an isolated cottage in the Lake District from Withnail’s wealthy, eccentric Uncle Monty (Griffiths) and get out of the city, hoping a bit of fresh air and tranquillity will revive their fortunes. Unfortunately, the pair aren’t best suited to rural life (“We’ve gone on holiday by mistake!”) and Withnail’s drunken behaviour gets them on the wrong side of the local poacher, Jake (Michael Elphick). Soon they have another problem – Uncle Monty arrives bearing gifts of wine and food, and he has designs on Marwood’s arse…
Notable Performances: Richard E. Grant is simply incredible in his first screen role as Withnail and has never bettered it. He’s a histrionic whirlwind as the cowardly, devious, narcissistic thespian, constantly raging at the world for not embracing his actorly genius… despite the fact he’s never done much acting. By the time we reach his rain-sodden Hamlet soliloquy in the park, delivered only for the benefit of a pack of disinterested wolves, we realise that he might have had a point.
Paul McGann is Grant’s perfect foil as Marwood. He alternates between a more down-to-earth, working-class accent and a slightly effeminate delivery. While he’s the straight man, he still gets some very funny lines – “My thumbs have gone weird!” and “I fuck arses. Who fucks arses? Maybe he fucks arses.” Richard Griffiths gives an immensely enjoyable and sympathetic performance as Uncle Monty. He’s a tragic character, looking back on a lifetime of regrets (“Alas, I have little more than vintage wine and memories…”) and illicit relationships that fell by the wayside thanks to the era’s censorious attitudes towards homosexuality (“I sometimes wonder where Norman is now. Probably wintering with his mother in Guildford. A cat, rain, Vim under the sink, and both bars on.”) It’s a masterclass in jovial, understated despair, and gives the film much of its heart. Ralph Brown provides a hilariously spaced-out performance as the boys’ drug dealer, Danny (“Hair are you aerials, man…”) and Michael Elphick provides menace as Jake, a threatening poacher (“You want working on, boy…”)
Musical Moments: Withnail and I opens to the sublime strains of King Curtis’s take on Whiter Shade of Pale, but the soundtrack is really all about Jimi Hendrix. Working on a modest budget, Robinson and the production team reportedly spent a king’s random securing the rights to two of the guitar shaman’s biggest tracks. It was worth every penny, providing an otherwise low-key movie with two big jolts of cinematic exhilaration. First, a wrecking ball swings as All Along the Watchtower kicks in, Marwood flips down his shades and the pair take their flight from London (“Scrubbers!”) in their battered Jaguar… absolute magic. Withnail makes a madcap drunken dash back to the capital while Marwood sleeps in the back seat while Voodoo Child soars and plummets into a haze of psychedelic noise… more magic. Verdict: Withnail and I is one of those cult classics that grow with you. I discovered it as a student in the ’90s and immediately identified with Withnail; as I grew older and wiser, left my best friend’s flat and moved abroad to pursue a new life, I began to feel more like Marwood. Now I’m in my early forties, I find myself sympathising more with Monty, now I have a few unfulfiled ambitions of my own to look back on wistfully. And I still quote the movie about five times a day… Personal feelings aside, Withnail and I is a terrific black comedy. Everything works perfectly, from the writing to the performances to the music to the production design, which creates an authentically seedy late ’60s atmosphere. It’s hard to pick out a scene or even a single line that could be cut. Perfection. Rating: 1969/1969 Trailer:

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Withnail Bluray

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