Withnail & I: A Classic Even an "Ignorant American" Should Enjoy
Don't know Bruce Robinson? Not many do, unless you suddenly bring up the fact that he directed the recent Hunter S. Thompson adaptation The Rum Diary . Even then, most unfamiliar with that movie's release won't know who the hell Hunter Thompson or Bruce Robinson are, even if Johnny Depp is automatically synonymous with both in the public eye. Robinson wrote and directed a film that I think captures both the spirit of the end of the 60s and into today, a film that explores the drunken desperation of being out-of-work, and being tossed between the euphoria of traveling without a care in the world and the pains of being alone. It's a film for which Hunter Thompson's personal illustrator Ralph Steadman did the poster artwork, and that George Harrison found important enough to partially fund it himself.
That film is Withnail & I .
Based on Robinson's own life (in the course of about two years), 1987's Withnail & I follows the two main characters, the narrator “I” (played by Paul McGann)—also referred to as Marwood—and the always-drunk and belligerent Withnail (portrayed awesomely by Richard E. Grant). The two are unemployed actors searching for (and not so much) acting roles in anything they can get their hands on. Living in a derelict apartment building, the two decide they've had enough of being stuck there without heating and without the means to grab a clean, decent meal. The two convince Withnail's beyond-flamboyant gay uncle Monty (Richard Griffiths) to lend them his vacation home out in the countryside for a couple of weeks. Driving there with nothing but happy madness and whiskey and wine on the brain, fueling a weekend of complete freedom, they drive out to the house only to find out this vacation was more of a mistake than anything else.
Really the only other character throughout the film that shows up is Danny the Drug Dealer, played by Ralph Brown, who later restored the character in Wayne's World 2. Always coming by their apartment, Danny is always onto a new drug nobody knows about, waxing philosophical about the beauty of getting high and the deplorable state of the world's deteriorating political scene. Some of his theories are hilarious: “I don't advise a haircut, man. All hairdressers are in the employment of the government. Hair are your aerials. They pick up signals from the cosmos and transmit them directly into the brain. This is the reason bald-headed men are uptight.”
While the film may be really funny at times, an air of sadness flows over the entire thing. Every day in England is dreary, buildings are being demolished everywhere, the pubs are filled with homophobic scowls ready to pick a fight with anyone for any reason. This is not a kind tribute to England. So is the reason Withnail and “I” find themselves alienated, rinsing their insides with the finest scotches and other spirits they can find.
What makes this film so driven is the eccentricity, unpredictability and complete misanthropy of Withnail. Always willing to proclaim his invincibility, he's not even afraid to try drinking lighter fluid if he's in need of any kind of drunk he can get. Whenever Danny, “purveyor of rare herbs”, makes his appearance with his scraggly hair and burned-out-rockstar clothes and swag, Withnail is constantly ready to challenge any high he offers, pill or joint. “Balls, I'll swallow it and run a mile.” At the same time, “I” is never up to much of a challenge. Though he uses speed and is as willing to slip into drunkenness as Withnail, he is largely more perceptive than him and carries with him a reluctance that counters all of Withnail's erratic moves.
While this film may take place in England toward the beginning of the 70s, marking an end to the decade of “free love” and hope for change, I think it speaks to the situation a lot of guys my age are in. Withnail certainly speaks to that part of me that thinks I can handle any chemical introduced into my system with resilience while being able to juggle a job and my intelligence with both hands. “I”, on the other hand, he's the voice of reason, the one who knows there are limits no matter how much you want to deny it. They're both products of the 60s, and Richard E. Grant even reminds me in both look and lostness of Bob Geldof's characterization of Pink from Pink Floyd's The Wall. He has that rockstar persona we all (or at least I) certainly feel wanting to come out. “I” speaks to the writer, the holder of the narrative. He even describes himself as a writer to Uncle Monty, who hilariously begins to hit on him with no clue as to his sexuality.
Sexuality brings me to another thing, as there are no women in this film, the only ones appearing old and gentile in the coffee shops Withnail and “I” attend while intoxicated on occasion. The two are without love and of course Monty adds a touch of homoeroticism, never backing down in his lust for “I” and challenging him with elegant references to art and literature, along with his unique perception of the world, as a means of seduction. But this is the sadness that pervades Withnail & I, as is echoed in the end of the film with a tragic monologue by Withnail, quoting a Hamlet soliloquy. “Man delights not me. No, nor women, neither... nor women, neither.” This film captures, I think, what it means to be without any sort of love from a woman, and what that does on top of the desperation of poverty. Withnail is a complex character, and as funny and likable as he may be, he is the tragedy of this entire film, apart from Monty, whose narrative ends with unrequited love as he states in one final farewell letter that he's experienced one-sided love his entire life.
Bruce Robinson based “I” on himself, the innocent kid open to new experiences, while Withnail is someone he knew who died young (he even attributed drinking lighter fluid as a major accelerator for his death). Robinson finally began to experience success as an actor, while the real life Withnail fell further into the pit of blind excess.
Withnail & I is definitely a gem, with a great soundtrack to add to it, contrasting the times with the ones Monty is more familiar with; you'll hear Jimi Hendrix's “All Along The Watchtower” next to a classical or jazz piece. The character of Withnail is forever iconic, irresistibly imitable and endlessly quoted among the movie's cult audience, and went on to inspire Johnny Depp's portrayal of Ichabod Crane in Sleepy Hollow and other actors' performances as well.
When watching this cult classic, I suggest enjoying it either with a group of like-minded friends (unfortunately, I bored a friend with this one) or in a Withnail-minded drunken state, or both. If you decide to play one of the nearly-infinite drinking games, don't use hard liquor for every drink unless alcohol poisoning is your thing.