by Ashley Naftule
“I’m 30 in a month and I’ve got a sole flapping off my shoe.”
It’s 1969 and two unemployed actors in Camden Town are struggling to stay afloat. While the Summer of Love zeitgeist is raging on in other parts of the country, Marwood (Paul McGann) and Withnail (Richard E. Grant) spend their days picking up unemployment, buying speed from their spacey drug dealer (Ralph Brown), getting tanked at the local pub, and trying not to freeze to death in their dump of a rental (a hovel so grotesque that both roomies are pretty sure there’s something alive underneath the mound of dirty dishes in the sink). The dream of the Sixties, the daisy age of Swingin’ London, couldn’t be further away.
Released in 1987, Withnail & I is a blackly comic masterpiece. Written and directed by Bruce Robinson, the film shines with a script so sharp it could cut through diamonds. It’s also anchored by the once-in-a-lifetime performance of Grant, whose Withnail is a hilarious tragic figure. With his slicked-back hair, shabby dandy clothes, vampiric pallor, and Byronic air, he’s simultaneously the best and worst dinner guest imaginable: the kind of person who could entertain you for hours with scintillating conversation, and who’d then run off with your silverware and finest wines by the end of the night.
The film begins in Camden Town, where we get a vivid snapshot of the two struggling actors coming down from a drunken, speed-fueled binge. The bespectacled, more levelheaded Marwood suggest they head out to the country to “unfuck their brains”; Withnail is more interested in drinking lighter fluid to catch a buzz. After an encounter in a pub where a roughneck local threatens to beat Marwood for being a “ponce” because he put perfume on his shoes, the Detox Duo convinces Withnail’s (very) gay uncle Monty to lend him his fuck-shack in the country for a weekend.
City boys being hilariously out of their depth in the country is an old comedy staple, but rarely has it been pushed to as extreme an edge as we see in Withnail & I. The duo is utterly hopeless at surviving in the country — whether its Marwood’s half-assed attempt at plucking a chicken or Withnail fishing with a shotgun, they are 100% not cut out for this. Instead of being a relaxing weekend in a verdant countryside, they’re left huddling in a cold shack, wondering if the stony-faced poacher from the pub is going to come over and murder them in their sleep.
But no matter how miserable their situation gets, Robinson keeps it compelling with his hysterical dialogue and beautifully paced set pieces like Marwood & Withnail’s meeting with the poacher in the pub or a side-splitting payoff to Withnail’s story about faking a drug test. He also milks a lot of comedic tension from the toxic friendship between the two men.
Withnail comes from the Bender B. Rodriguez School of Friendship. He’s your drunken best mate who will abandon you in a heartbeat when a thug threatens to kick your ass. His charm is readily apparent, but so is his selfishness. He’s also willfully self-destructive, like when he angrily turns down an understudy role because it’s beneath him (despite always complaining that he can’t find any work as an actor).
Part of what makes Withnail & I so compelling is how true it feels. If you’ve ever been a part of a creative community, you’ve met people like Withnail: fantastically talented human beings who’d probably make an indelible mark on their field if they could get their shit together for a day or two. Every time I watch Robinson’s film, I think of all the brilliant people I know in Phoenix – poets, musicians, artists, actors – who could do truly magnificent things if they just eased up on the Hunter S. Thompson lifestyle a bit.
The film also feels timeless. While it’s set in the ’60s, it doesn’t feel particularly beholden to that era. Aside from some Beatles and Jimi Hendrix tunes on the soundtrack, Withnail could have just as easily taken place in the ’70s, ’80s, or even today (if you sprinkled in a few cell phones and a computer). The only thing that really feels of its time is Danny the dealer’s “London is a country coming down from its trip” monologue about Woolworth’s selling hippie wigs.
Speaking of Danny: while Grant’s role is the main attraction, Ralph Brown does fantastic work as the laconic, slow-speaking dealer. Dressed up in a get-up that looks like Marc Bolan after joining Aerosmith, he steals every scene he’s in. He’s a warm, goofy presence, but is also able to convey a menacing air in his scenes (like when he’s pouring pills out of a doll’s head).
There are some bits that haven’t aged well – in particular the gay panic that surrounds Richard Griffiths’ Uncle Monty. His impassioned come-ons to Marwood in the countryside feels like it’s just a few banjo plucks away from going into Limey Deliverance. But Marwood’s discomfort around Monty gives his character a flaw that makes him more than just the put-upon straight man of Withnail (whereas Grant’s character doesn’t seem the least bit phased about his uncle’s sexuality).
One of the enduring mysteries surrounding the film is why Robinson and Grant haven’t done more work over the years. Robinson shows his talent for screenwriting, as well as his sure hand behind a camera. The film features moody, understated cinematography that really shows how terrible Marwood and Withnail’s lives are in all their wretched glory. And there are shots that are eye-catching, like the yellow light in the country bar that makes the entire scene look like it’s been shot through a nicotine stain filter. And yet despite his talent as a writer & director, Robinson has only made a handful of films since Withnail & I (the only film coming close to Withnail’s magic is 1989’s How To Get Ahead In Advertising, which also starred Richard E. Grant). He has such a distinct, well-developed voice as a filmmaker that it’s our loss he hasn’t been more active.
And if anyone is a shoe-in for the Chris Eigeman Award for Why Doesn’t This Guy Get More Work? it’s Richard E. Grant. The fact that the man hasn’t been in hundreds of films since his star-making turn as Withnail is perplexing; at the very least, he should have been in a couple of Harry Potters.
In a parallel universe, one could imagine Grant’s final scene as his Academy Award reel. Withnail, alone, drunk, and on the verge of homelessness, recites a passage from Hamlet to a pen of wolves. Marwood has left him to act in a lead role in a play, getting a haircut and leaving his speed-and-booze addled life in Camden Town behind. Withnail, out of work and out of prospects, pours himself into that final monologue. It’s a final tragic grace note to the film – we see Withnail at his best, after watching an entire film of him being a silver-tongued heel trapped by his destructive urges. One caged animal performing for another, howling in the afternoon rain.