As the dark winter months are softened by our own seasonal excess, it seems only right to raise a glass to Bruce Robinson’s boozy tale of two down-and-out actors struggling with poverty, existential angst and an ill-judged country break in the rain-lashed Cumbrian hills. With Richard E Grant and Paul McGann heading up a very capable cast, Withnail and I continues to be a firm favourite more than three decades since its first release.
As the swinging sixties draw to a close, our anti-heroes begin to wonder if there’s more to life than booze, drugs and waiting for the next acting job, so they flee London’s drizzling grime in search of a simpler, more wholesome slice of life. Alas, what they find is perpetual rain, unfriendly locals and Withnail’s upper crust Uncle Monty lurking in the shadows, hell bent on indulging his own sexual desires far from London society’s prying eyes.
With hugely entertaining characters and a scintillating script, Withnail and I is easily one of the most memorable, hilarious, strangely profound and oddly poignant British films ever made. The mere mention of this movie (especially in a pub) releases a barrage of unsolicited quotes, quips and comebacks that can keep a large group laughing long past closing time.
Although delivered to make us laugh, we understand Withnail’s jaded outlook only too well because we know he often tells the truth, if only by accident. That fact that Withnail and his sidekick remain hilarious throughout, yet sadly touching in their final scenes together is a testament to Robinson’s skill as both a writer and a director. None of us can ever forget Withnail’s lonely Shakespearean monologue in the pouring rain, with nobody to witness or applaud the flowering of his creative genius.
Despite its shoestring feel, Withnail and I was produced on a small but serviceable budget, punching way above its weight in terms of investment returns over the many years since. This is a movie providing yet more proof that, at least in budgetary terms, bigger is not necessarily better. Far glossier and much more presumptuous productions have faded into obscurity while the two actors who aren’t from London continue to delight new audiences as they drink, argue and debate their way across some of Britain’s most beautiful countryside (when we can glimpse it through the endless rain).
Apart from being uncommonly amusing, Withnail and I has endured because we recognise something of ourselves in our sozzled aspirants as they stumble from one misadventure to the next, swirling randomly like the omnipresent cigarette smoke accompanying Withnail’s often pretentious yet oddly profound pronouncements on life, society and the cutthroat world of commercial creativity.
The script never lets up for a moment, somehow lurching from surreal farce, to deep introspection and back again without ever missing a step, a feat rarely repeated by even the best scriptwriting talents. Withnail and I’s larger than life characters are often warm and endearing as they invite us into their strange and comical world, a world which all too often masks troubled minds and difficult lives hiding in plain sight behind the comedy. It is this background of grinding, hopeless despair that elevates the characters’ doomed struggle against obscurity to a level both higher and deeper than merely being a couple of really funny blokes dead set against the world. It’s as though the rain, the befuddled drunkenness and the omnipresent threat of eviction create a dark scenery against which the characters on screen can shine so much more brightly. There’s a little of Withnail’s drunken profundity in all of us, and that is why we still love him after all these years.