By Nora Gilmartin
Director: Bruce Robinson
Production: HandMade Films
George Harrison was a producer, allowing it to be one of the few films in history that contains an original, fully licensed Beatles song (Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”)
Infamous in British university culture for its impossibly difficult drinking game
There is always one work within every film lover’s artillery that serves as the perfect representative for their sense of humor. The absurdist name drops Monty Python films— fans of eccentric, wry humor tout Coen brother works like Fargo— disciples of visual comedy worship Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead. So in an attempt to self-categorize my comedic taste, I always simply say, “I’m a big fan of Withnail and I, you know what I mean?” Only no one ever knows what I mean. They’ve never even heard of it.
That’s not to say to Bruce Robinson’s directorial debut wasn’t beloved, or indeed even worshipped. The film holds a cult status in the hearts of many Brits, and arguably served as the catalyst for star Richard E. Grant’s career. It has aged like fine wine for the press, now being ranked as one of the top British comedies of all time. But for whatever reason, it never made its home in the States. Perhaps Withnail’s visa was denied because of public intoxication charges. Because if there’s one thing you rarely see in this film of many elements and many one-liners, it’s the main characters sober.
The film opens like a raging hangover. Set in a squalid flat in Camden Town in 1969, we are introduced to two of the many casualties of the decade of artistic exploration– Withnail (Richard E. Grant) and “I” (Paul McGann). As the rest of the world settles back into the drone of office routine and 6 o’clock news, Withnail and his companion are still “resting”– broke, unemployed actors, with serious alcohol problems.
Withnail is Shakespearean in his flamboyance— teetering between the pride and arrogance of a king, and the emotional imbalance of a madman. He assails against the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune and curses the underserving folk who have become more successful than him. “I”— also referred to as Marwood in the screenplay, but never named in the film— serves as the voice of the audience. Only slightly saner, he strives to find ways to resolve their destitute state and avoid any further chaos.
In an attempt to flee urban London, they reach out to Withnail’s wealthy Uncle Monty. Played by Richard Griffiths, Monty has been lauded for decades as his greatest role (sorry, Potter fans). A corpulent, gay Oxford alum, he manages his time equally between tending his growing vegetable collection and reminiscing over half-fabricated memories of his thespian years. They obtain a key to his home in the country, and immediately head off in their deteriorating Jaguar.
The holiday, unsurprisingly, is a disaster. The pair find themselves even more out of their element than ever before, in a dingy, wet hut of a summer home— relying on their own natural hunting ability to gather food. They attempt to shove a chicken in a kettle, and use plastic grocery bags as Wellingtons. The nightmare is heightened tenfold when Monty arrives in an attempt to seduce Marwood. He retreats when he gets the impression that Marwood and Withnail are in a secret affair, and is saddened by yet another rejection in his old age.
Despite being a comedy, the film is incredibly self-aware of the tragic nature of the characters. The world no longer holds a place for their kind— if it ever did— and they have reached the age where they must adapt, or perish. In a moment of ingenuousness, Monty holds the boys’ hands and declares, “We are at the end of an age… And here we are, we three, perhaps the last island of beauty in the world.” It is a sentiment echoed throughout the film by the companions, and reflected by the behavior of the outsiders. They are harassed by local drunks, ignored by rural neighbors, rejected by posh tea drinkers, and abused (albeit rightfully) by the police. These are the scenes which provide the greatest comedic effect in the film, but upon further scrutiny reveal the bleak future to come. What will happen to these characters, when the last drop of wine is spilled, and when they tire of amusing schemes to escape their state?
Marwood is astute enough to realize what must be done. Upon returning to London he secures the leading role in a play, cuts his hair, and makes his final exit. An eviction notice comes through the mail, for which Withnail is too high to even show concern. Yet he reveals his devastating fragility in the final scenes, as he attempts to appear happy for his friend’s success, while trailing him to the station— quietly hoping Marwood will become aware of his betrayal. Marwood remains headstrong, saying his sincerest goodbye in Regent’s Park. Withnail is truly, completely alone.
Standing in the rain, in front of the wolf enclosure they used to frequent together, Withnail belts out the “Hamlet” soliloquy: “What a piece of work is man.” The rain strengthens in its intensity, as if to drown him out, but he continues to scream over the downpour. He takes his bow, and the screenplay ends with, “The wolves are unimpressed.” There is something painfully relatable about Withnail as he walks into the distance. His bombastic and rebellious facade has been shattered, the last remnants of dreams finally crushed, with no support or encouragement to be found. He is stranded– a man out of time. Out of cash. Out of booze.
So how does this reflect upon myself, and others who declare Withnail & I to be their favorite comedy film of all time? Perhaps we embrace the more farcical elements of life, acknowledging that the most comical and extravagant characters are often also the most tragic. We can find humor in the darker sides of humanity, and mockery in those who herald themselves as the elite. And maybe, just maybe, we fear that we are the outsiders— narrowly avoiding isolation and destructive despair.
Jesus. That’s grim. Time for another drink.
Nora Gilmartin graduated from Hunter College with a BA in English Literature.