It’s 1969, a decade is collapsing, and two would-be actors wake up in their seedy London apartment. Debauched and shaky, they are suffering from the accumulated hangover of that overextended decade. One of them surveys their wasted room and bedraggled selves, and announces, “We are indeed drifting into the arena of the unwell.”
That’s one of the many bitingly funny lines of dialogue in Withnail & I, a wonderfully acerbic English film by writer-director Bruce Robinson. Robinson’s semi-autobiographical screenplay (and his directing debut) takes these two dissipated blokes through a misadventure in the countryside, where they embody the hopes and disillusionment of the time, and finally find their separate directions.
Withnail is the more florid of the two; Marwood is a quieter chap, still in awe of his friend’s flamboyance. Both are notably unsuccessful in landing jobs: Withnail becomes incensed when beaten out for a low-rent cigar commercial.
Their jaunt in the country takes them to the cabin of Withnail’s uncle (Richard Griffiths), who isn’t using the place at the time. They prove to be completely inept at the most rudimentary living skills, such as making a fire, confronting farm animals, or preparing food (a neighbor presents the puckish pair with a live chicken, which presents an utterly perplexing situation: “How do we make it die?” wonders Withnail).
Then the uncle unexpectedly arrives, with romantic designs on Marwood. The prankish Withnail encourages his uncle, which leads to a farcical chase around various rooms of the old house.
Robinson (who wrote The Killing Fields) finds a marvelously black tone for all of this. He never lets the cleverness of his dialogue become an end in itself, but always makes the words serve the character. And there’s just the right dose of rue that creeps in – particularly surrounding Withnail, who revels in his self-dramatic outrageousness but senses the failure of his acting ambitions.
The actors who play Withnail and Marwood, Richard E. Grant and Paul McGann, are not well-known, but they should be hereafter. They are vocally deft, but also physically hilarious. Some of their physical work is highly memorable: McGann in the country kitchen, recoiling from the uncle’s unwanted advances while absurdly trying to remain polite; a hungry Grant bellowing, “I want something’s flesh!” while striding imperiously through a country stream, sighting fish and blasting away point-blank with a shotgun.
First published in The Herald, June 1987
Grant and McGann have rarely been out of work since. It opened at the Ridgemont in Seattle, a good theater for that kind of thing. In the UK this film has lofty status, understandably so. Robinson’s next film was How to Get Ahead in Advertising, a funny/weird movie, but he directed very little after that (George Harrison’s HandMade Films produced both pictures).