Although I am not a smoker, I’ll admit it can look cool in the movies. Humphrey Bogart has his fedora/cigarette combo to thank, in some part, for his illustrious career and ladykilling – he wasn’t the best looking chap. However high their theatrical ambitions, this is sadly not the case for either Withnail nor I in Bruce Robinson’s semi-autobiographical and perennially brilliant masterpiece.
The film opens with a bleary-eyed, disconsolate Paul McGann (the “I” of the film’s title, never addressed by name), fag in mouth, forlornly moping around the rat-infested pigsty of a flat that he inhabits with “Withnail” (Richard E. Grant) in Camden, North London, 1969. The butt-end of the swinging sixties.
Never has the smoking of a cigarette on film been so tragic. In the background, an instrumental live version of Procol Harum’s ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’ adds to the melancholia of the scene but the smatterings of applause that are heard strike a discord with the despairing scene.
This contrast sets the tone for the majority of the film. It is tragically hilarious. We will clap, laugh and cry in equal measure. And for our leading duo it is generally a double, treble or even quadruple measure of whatever is behind the bar.
Whilst both “Withnail” and “I” have aspirations of being the next Gielgud, they are down on their luck, out of work and appalled at the injustice of wasting their sublime talents. Withnail laments that he is a “trained actor, reduced to the status of a bum.” They drink outlandish amounts of booze, take drugs, don’t eat or sleep for days on end and complain about the bitter cold inside the hovel they call home – “It’s like Greenland in here” – despite the film being set during a rainy September. As a side note for those of the Anchorman generation who, like me, can quote that film from start to finish, Withnail and I has some of the best one-liners and dialogue of any film I have ever had the pleasure to see.
Grant, ironically, is completely teetotal due to an intolerance to alcohol, but has a bottle in his hand for nearly the entirety of the film and delivers all of his lines with a swaggering lucidity. Whatever his state of inebriation he is whip-smart, linguistically venomous, supremely self-confident and opinionated; caring for little more than what time the pub opens. “I” is almost the polar opposite; nervy, paranoid but at the same time more optimistic and philosophical than his counterpart – “A stopped clock tells the time twice a day.” A case of opposites attracting. Their repartee is astoundingly well written and their delivery on the money.
A crisis meeting held at the pub, naturally, over multiple double gins and pints of cider, results in a visit to Withnail’s extravagant, lascivious and leering uncle Monty (Richard Griffiths), whose property in the Peak District the boys wish to visit to escape the doldrums of their London existence, if only for a weekend. Larger than life in both physical size and personality, Monty shares his nephew’s love of the stage, is overtly homosexual and takes an instant liking to the unsuspecting “I”. However, the film does not mock Monty or seek to make him a fool. Instead his loneliness, years of isolation and hopeless misreading of certain situations elicit sympathy and compassion from the audience, if not from the two younger men with whom he shares the screen. He is a poetic character, rhyming off Baudelaire, but at the same time he is a rather pathetic given his over-inflated sense of self-worth and hopeless romanticism. Richard Griffiths, who is sadly no longer with us, is magnificent. Those who know him only as Uncle Vernon in the Harry Potter films will delight in, and be made a little uncomfortable by, his tremendous performance in this film.
Jimi Hendrix’s version of ‘All Along the Watchtower’ rings out as our leading men jump into their clapped out Jag and head for the countryside. Never have two fish been so out of water and so woefully unprepared as these city boys as they attempt a weekend sojourn in the wilds of the Peak District. “We’ve gone on holiday by mistake” wails Withnail as they cross a farmer in the pouring rain and make a desperate plea for fuel and food.
More drinks, a surprise and rather inappropriate visit from Monty, a run in with a bull, more drinks, a poacher pulling a live eel from his trousers, more drinks, some cake and a lesson in how not to act in a quaint English tea-room follow as the hilarity, and lack of any coherent plot-line, continues. Despite the gloom, incessant precipitation and overall mood of ridiculousness, the film and its three principals keep us engaged and well entertained throughout.
However, as the saying goes, all good things must come to an end. Just as a wrecking ball destroys a block of disused buildings close to the boys’ Camden flat, the end of the 60s will bring to an end “the greatest decade in the history of mankind.” So says the prophetic Danny (Ralph Brown), a drug-dealing brother-in-arms to Withnail and I and inventor of the “Camberwell Carrot” – a spliff as big as, well, a carrot. Although his mind is addled with years of abuse, he has the foresight to proclaim that “London is a country coming down from its trip.” The honeymoon period is well and truly over.
The film closes on a more sobering note with another walk in the park as the paths of our two heroes diverge. Withnail, still a long way from sober, carries with him a bottle of Margaux ’53 which he considers to be the “best of the century.” He is not yet ready to relinquish his grip on fine wine, a life without responsibility and his illusions of grandeur. He performs the ‘What a piece of work is a man’ speech from Hamlet with the elegance and eloquence the beauty of the language merits but he is entirely alone. Were he on a West End stage it would receive rapturous applause but instead it is delivered to no-one at all in the pouring rain.
Like some wines, Withnail and I will not necessarily appeal to all palates. I delight in its language, the performance of its cast, its humour and the fact that just like its central pairing, it is a film that does not care what you think of it. Although if it did care, I would tell it that it was marvellous.