Director: Bruce Robinson
Screenplay: Bruce Robinson
Producers: Paul Heller, George Harrison, Denis O’Brien
Starring: Richard E. Grant, Paul McGann, Richard Griffiths, Ralph Brown
BBFC Certification: 15
Duration: 107 min
When writing reviews designed to encourage others to seek out and share in your own personal pleasures, part of the joy is the opportunity to enthuse about the things you love. However, while I enjoy immensely singing the praises of great works of art, I invariably shy away from tackling my very favourite pieces in any medium. This can be the result of many factors, including the fear of an inability to do the piece justice and the desire not to soil the purity of the straightforward, unanalytical relationship I have previously enjoyed with certain sources of visual and aural pleasure. With Bruce Robinson’s 1987 classic Withnail and I, the former is very much the case. How could any piece of writing (and there have been many) possibly encapsulate the devastating brilliance of this tragi-comic masterpiece?
By rights, given the nature of this rhetorical question, my review should end there. And yet to not review Withnail and I at some time would be to do a disservice to my desire to write about film, let alone the enduring work of Robinson, Richard E. Grant, Paul McGann, Richard Griffiths and Ralph Brown. While there are numerous hilarious and perfectly judged bit-parts (most famously the shrill police officer who shrieks “GETINTHEBACKOFTHEVAN”), it is these five men who carry the film and make it the great work it is. Robinson’s comedically ahead-of-its-time script is arguably the lynchpin (though his subtle, muted direction is also impressive), but its success hinges on finding exactly the right actors to play each of the four leads. This requirement has been fulfilled on every count.
Of course, there is Richard E. Grant as Withnail, a beautifully judged performance in a role which most actors would have seen as an opportunity to go wildly over the top. Grant somehow manages to portray Withnail as the emotionally flamboyant creature he is without camping it up even remotely. This is a performance of great depth, the wretched sadness of the character cloaked behind swathes of hilarious, perfectly delivered lines that would leave most actors scratching their heads in an attempt to find a suitable reading. There is added emotional weight to Grant’s performance when you factor in that the actor’s baby girl had died just 13 weeks prior to the shooting of Withnail and I, a tragedy that surely could not help but be visible in this saddest of comedy turns.
While Grant manages to portray Withnail’s flamboyance without making him camp, Richard Griffith’s character, the sweet-natured but sexually predatory homosexual Uncle Monty, allows him to unleash every hammy impulse he has ever had in his career. And yet, while he enjoys this rare opportunity, Griffiths also gives a deftly controlled performance of hidden subtleties. Rather than make Uncle Monty a limp-wristed stereotype designed to insult gays everywhere by making a punchline out of a sexual preference, Griffiths creates a real human being, emphasising the character’s penchant for florid language as a method of deflection from his own weaknesses and insecurities. Robinson has weaved numerous references to Monty’s past into the screenplay which highlight the tragedy of what he has become; an overweight, lonely ex-actor who will “never play The Dane”.
Given the force of these two powerhouse comedy performances (two of the best to ever appear on cinema screens), Paul McGann has his work cut out as the titular “I”, actor Marwood, ostensibly the film’s straightman and the sole character who seems to be in with a chance of escaping his nightmarishly squalid situation. McGann’s performance frequently goes unmentioned as critics tend to focus on Grant and Griffiths but Marwood is perhaps the hardest part to play. He is the emotional centre of the film, the comparatively normal narrator with whom we can empathise. It is through his complex relationship with Withnail that we are given fleeting glimpses of the latter’s humanity. In order for us to accept this, however, their relationship must be believable and McGann manages to indicate, without making it overt, the affection he has for his fellow unemployed actor. Again, this straightman role (which, in reality, is too funny to be truly considered a straightman role) is one that could and would have been played completely wrongly by most actors. Just as the unimaginative thespian would have played Withnail as a Kenneth Williams impression, so Marwood could well have been rendered as a constantly exasperated victim who communicates through exaggerated double takes and cartoonish facial expressions. McGann is shrewd enough to detect that there is none of this in Robinson’s script and, in fact, Marwood has much in common with Withnail and often enjoys his company and the lifestyle they share. The full extent of this shared affection reveals itself in the heartbreaking final scene in which both men beautifully portray their love for one another in the most moving goodbye in cinema history.
Completing the cast is Ralph Brown as Danny the drug dealer. With his unique dress-sense and monotonous Harold Steptoe voice, Danny is the one caricature amongst the subtle performances. And yet, that is exactly how Danny is written in the script and Brown grounds him in reality enough that his two scenes are not remotely unbelievable and stand as some of Withnail and I‘s most hilarious sequences.
Plot-wise, Withnail and I employs the early Seinfeld-ian manifesto to create a film about nothing. The story, if we momentarily ignore all other facets of the film and synopsise based on action alone, is simply about two out of work actors who go to the country and then come back. Yet clearly the uneventful narrative framework is merely the scaffolding for a film which examines issues of friendship, sexuality, ambition, love, depression, dependency (both chemical and human) and the crushing anticlimactic collapse of ideals which characterised the final days of the 1960s. This latter theme, evoked through the presence of a great soundtrack and characters like the disillusioned Danny (who has one of the best speeches of the film in his final oratory about the death of the 60s), is crucial in setting the film’s tone and, while it isn’t mentioned a great deal in the dialogue, 1969 is practically Withnail and I‘s fifth main character. The sense of the Summer of Love being written off as a failure alongside the likes of growing concerns over Vietnam, the disintegration of the Beatles and the recent memory of Martin Luther King’s assassination all epitomise the dank, desperate atmosphere of Withnail and I, while Withnail and Marwood probably strike a chord with millions of children of the 60s who were left directionless and disillusioned by the appearance of “hippy wigs in Woolworths”.
In a film that is jam packed with quotable lines, Robinson has managed to stay true to all four of his characters. Often, quotable movies simply place big wodges of clever dialogue into the mouths of characters who would never say such words (Quentin Tarantino, brilliant as his early films are, is a conspicuous practitioner of this verbal incongruity) but Robinson makes Danny’s lines hilarious in a completely different way to Monty’s, just as Marwood’s dry denouncements counterbalance Withnail’s flamboyant proclamations. This is one of the reasons Withnail and I is still so widely quoted, because there are so many different types of brilliant lines and not a discernible proper joke among them. The comedy, more than in any other film that immediately springs to mind, comes entirely from character, situation, performance, turn of phrase and the masterfully deployed art of effective swearing. I won’t allow this review to descend into yet another list of all the eternally memorable quotes that appear throughout the film (and it’s no exaggeration to say that there is practically one every few seconds) but rather just encourage anyone who has yet to see Withnail and I to seek it out immediately and enjoy it with the finest wines known to humanity (ok, I allowed myself one!).