“If you’re hanging on to a rising balloon, you’re presented with a difficult decision” – Danny
What Withnail And I achieves, is the promise so many movies have falsely laid claim to – perfection. Laden with equal amounts of wit and charm, with a minimalist aesthetic, it rolls as a theatre production, more so than a celluloid extravaganza. Upon release in April 1987, it was hailed then, and has since become the finest example where a black comedy meets a ‘Kitchen Sink’ drama – achieving a cult status, and at the same time a drinking game (yes, really). In truth it is a ‘buddy movie’, a tale of friendship and the fear of losing that dynamic which exists between two people. As adulthood dawns, and young men cross into the area of responsibility, and they cling desperately to a carefree world that slowly and uncontrollably slips away.
Written and directed by Bruce Robinson (Screenwriter on The Killing Fields), it is based to a degree on his own life experiences. It stars in their debut film roles; Richard E. Grant as Withnail and Paul McGann as ‘I’ (or Marwood) – he is never actually named in the movie. The duo compliment each other, Withnail the upper class, obnoxious, drunk, and Marwood the level-headed sense of reason. Withnail And I journeys to the dying days of the sixties, and follows the misfortunes of two unemployed actors, struggling to eat, keep warm and most importantly stay intoxicated. Their only interaction with the outside world consists of strolls to pubs, and visits by drug dealer Danny (Ralph Brown). As a way of breaking free from their monotonous, depressing existence, Withnail devises a plan to ask his Uncle Monty (Richard Griffiths) if the pair can stay in his holiday home located in Cumbria.
What may seem like a straightforward story twists to something more. Away from the concrete surroundings of Camden Town, the pair are out of their comfort zone and out of their depth trying to navigate rural life. In some respects this represents how the bleakness of life is found within, and not just in the surroundings – a change of environment is not an escape from the mind.
With the locals unaccepting of the pair – in particular Withnail’s insults in the local pub, they both fear for their lives at night, until the arrival of Monty. This is driven by Monty’s expectation of romance with Marwood after Withnail falsely alludes to Marwood’s own closet homosexuality. Marwood swiftly rejects Monty’s advances. Monty departs, leaving the pair with little in the way of hope.
The friendship is dealt a blow, in particular for Withnail, and as Marwood receives a telegram of work from his agent. Envious but supportive, an intoxicated Withnail proceeds to get his friend to his audition to escape this hellish reality. A drunk driving offence aside, the cruel overriding theme of time rears its head, and where on one hand time changes one’s destiny, another’s will stay the same. The last sign of shedding rebellion and the old life appears as Marwood sheds his long hair for the tightened respectability. Losing a friendship and the uncertain isolation he is faced with, brings out the melancholic side of Withnail, as if losing the one thing in his life that was worthwhile. Although it is rumoured the director had toyed with the idea of Withnail ending it all, instead he decided to use a soliloquy from Hamlet in the abysmal rain.
“I have of late — but wherefore I know not — lost all my mirth, forgone all customs of exercises and, indeed, it goes so heavily on my disposition that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory.”
Looking back at the 35 years since the release of Withnail And I, some have mistaken the film for an outing made at the time of its setting. Perhaps that points to a more eternal framework, one where the themes are every prevalent, and not constrained by any era. It may have dated, and indeed shows its age, but that grainy texture adds to the thriving atmosphere of bleakness, and sets the tone for comedic athleticism. Further, the language, and the delivery of every line are all executed perfectly. The clever way in which the quick fire speech is delivered, creates an aspect of a layered approach, where on repeated viewing new nuances and phrases are realised.
Not often do such themes of downtrodden life ride high with such value. And It is in how those subtle comedic elements are handled and pulled from what can be viewed as a tragedy, which creates the winning formula here. These different pieces combine to make it the crème de la crème when it comes to reflecting on British cinema, and every comedic outing before it and since. That is part of the charm, and Withnail And I proves how large budgets, huge casting names, and any expense is needed when all the cogs in an artistic machine roll correctly. A fun fact: Alien 3 (1992) director David Fincher, wanted to reunite the cast for that movie, being such a fan of Withnail And I. Whereas Ralph Brown and Paul McGann appeared, the studio felt Grant was too soft for the prison environment. The following year, Ralph Brown did channel the spirit of Danny The Dealer into Del Preston, the roadie in Wayne’s World 2.
Finally, and keeping with the spirit of things, that aforementioned (not recommended) drinking game centres on matching drink for drink to what the pair do on screen. Quite the feat, but then again we are not all Withnails, and we can only hope that he is still out there, covering himself in Deep Heat to stay warm, and drinking lighter fluid when needs be.