Withnail & I (1987)

withnail and i

“I think you should strangle it quickly, before it tries to make friends with us.”

The Scoop: R 1987, directed by Bruce Robinson and starring Richard E. Grant, Paul McGann, and Richard Griffiths.

Tagline: If you don’t remember the sixties, don’t worry. Neither do they.

Summary Capsule: Two unemployed and unemployable actors at the end of the 1960’s go on a memorable trip to the great British countryside to ‘rejuvenate’, while drinking everything alcoholic in sight.

Rich’s rating: Staggering (in more ways than one).

Rich’s review: If there is a reason that this film deserves to be reviewed here, by me, let it be this; in the great annals of Hollywood, many films have been made which speak directly to the college experience in the United States; frat houses, keggers, and wacky antics involving school mascots and whipped cream fill the celluloid archives – some good (like our beloved leaders equally beloved PCU), some not so good. But of those films which represent the University experience on my fair Sceptred Isle of England, there’s narry a one to be seen.

So, while the colleges of our American brethren are filled with students eager to emulate the antics of Animal House and the like, alas for the poor British students who have no such Hollywood role-models. Lost and directionless, the student masses of the United Kingdom look elsewhere for their inspiration…and they find Withnail & I. Amongst a slew of cult films which have become the standard fare of the British Student, Withnail & I towers over all of them, laughing and pointing until it falls over dead drunk.

There are parties devoted to this film. There are at least three drinking games related to it that I know about. And it’s infinitely quotable script quickly becomes as much a part of student vocabulary as Monty Python. On top of that, it’s actually a genuinely funny, touching, and well acted piece of cinema which, despite being made in 1987, still holds incredible relevance for the ‘youth of today’ (whoever they are).

So, having rambled on about the majestic relevance of this masterpiece, I suppose I should probably mention a little about the film itself. Withnail and I (again, it’s another film with a nameless main character; the ‘I’ of the title is the narrator, through who’s eyes we see the events of the film) are a pair of down on their luck actors in 1969 London. Both are from rich families, have expensive educations, and are determined not to be ‘normal working’ people. However, their lack of jobs, plus Withnail’s amazingly hedonistic tendencies, mean they live in a rat-infested shared flat, owe money to everyone, and generally exist in squalor. And people wonder why students identify with this film…?

After a string of failed auditions, the pair decide that a break in the Great British Countryside to get them away from London and lift their spirits. However, they are monumentally unprepared for such a trip. Heck, Withnail is rarely prepared to eat and breathe, never mind exist on his own wits in a country cottage. The pair stumble from disaster to disaster, including aggravating the locals, an encounter with a randy bull and a randy Uncle Monty (Withnail’s incredibly camp relative, who takes quite a shine to ‘I’), being threatened with fish and figuring out how to kill a chicken. Throughout all these trials, Withnail’s first and foremost solution to each of them is to get absolutely staggeringly drunk on anything available while generally bemoaning the state of the world and actively trying to get ‘I’ to do everything for him.

It might not sound like much, but it’s the script, the characters and the performances which make this film; Richard E. Grant (who you might have seen in Spice World, or Hudson Hawk – the man doesn’t really pick his films too carefully…) is astonishingly perfect as the incredibly aristocratic drunken sot Withnail; making passionate declarations while drunk up to his eyeballs on whatever is available, while Paul McGann (erstwhile of Queen of the Damned, and whose part was cut out of Alien3– another actor who’s film career isn’t exactly stellar) plays a wonderfully understated ‘I’, the ignored voice of reason swept along by Withnail’s mad rush to the bar. The script is just full of fantastic lines as well, as the huge section of Groovy Quotes below will attest to; though the words alone can’t really do justice to Richard E. Grant’s brilliantly overblown acting.

I know why students love this film; the identification between Withnail and themselves is amazing. Both live in squalor, both hate to work, and both drink as much as possible. Arguments such as the ‘who’s going to make the coffee’ argument, and the ‘we should really do some washing up before something evolves in the sink and eats us’ dilemma resonate in student houses throughout the land. Oh, and there’s some kind of touching undercurrent about loyalty, friendship, and failed dreams, but by the time that comes to the fore, all the students playing their drinking games are face down on the carpet that hasn’t been cleaned for 4 months.

This is a very British film, with some very British slang in it; so be warned, non-anglophiles – our crazy Brit words will be coming at you thick and fast. The language gets pretty vulgar, and there’s some recreational drug use (after all, this film is set in the 60’s) if that’s the kind of thing that’s likely to offend you. If not, and you’re a fan of sharp dialogue over explosions and murder, Withnail & I might be a perfect night’s viewing for you.

Louise’s rating: How many ways can someone feeling awful be this funny?

Louise’s review: I first saw Withnail & I at two in the morning at a friend’s sleepover. You would think this would put a person in the right frame of mind to watch a film as dirty and debauched as this, but you would be wrong. I missed a lot of the humour due to being sleepy, and I had no experience of that hideous thing known as ‘flat-sharing’. Now, at a different stage in my life, I get it. I totally get it, and I think it’s brilliant. The lighting and sound are pretty horrendous by today’s standards (which can also put off a viewer) but the hollow, hungover laugh factor is good to go.

Our narrator (whom I shall call Peter) and his friend Withnail are unemployed actors, at the dirty end of their twenties, living in Camden at the dirty end of the 1960s. They have long hair, share a filthy flat, they drink far too much, and they are possibly in love. Red-eyed and pasty, Withnail and Peter decide they are “drifting into the arena of the unwell” and need a bracing holiday in the beautiful countryside. Withnail manages to borrow a cottage from his eccentric and predatory Uncle Monty, but when the two finally reach the Lake District, they realize that they are nowhere near tough enough for rural life, and have to face down bulls, locals, chickens, weather, and Monty himself, who has got quite the wrong idea about Peter’s ‘preferences.’ Between fending off Monty and trying to find food, Withnail and Peter have to come to terms with the fact that they are “coming down off their trip” and changes to their destructive co-dependence  are inevitable and imminent (Peter has got an acting job which requires him to cut his hair and move away, and their street is being demolished). It’s deeply symbolic.

First, Withnail. Withnail is a genius character. A coward, a layabout, a whinger with an entitlement complex, an alcoholic who would sell his own boyfriend friend to his uncle for the sake of a holiday, tries to shoot fish in a river, and yet has an admirable sense of style. He is also a pretty decent actor, and could probably get a job if he was prepared to put in a little effort. I don’t know if he comes from an aristocratic family, and has rejected them for ‘the real world,’ yet still feels that work is beneath him; or if he comes from a middle-class family, and has rejected them for Bohemia, which is why he feels that work is beneath him. I believe his willingness to pimp Peter to Uncle Monty is an attempt to draw attention away from his own feelings for Peter, plus he’s just not a very nice person. Withnail is played by Richard E. Grant.

Peter is played by Paul McGann, also known as the Eighth Doctor (in one TV film, and many, many audio-books and radio plays – he’s actually done as much work as the Doctor as any other actor) and in 1987 going through his beautiful phase. I mean it. The man is beautiful. There’s one scene towards the end, where he’s cut off his hair and you can finally see his face properly and, whew! Woof! Wowsa! He rises from the bath like a male Venus rising from the Aegean Sea. I think this gorgeousness is what makes him more vulnerable than Withnail – it is a running gag through the film that Peter is wrongly identified as gay by rough masculine types, some of whom take offense, and some of whom *ahem* take aim. His vulnerability is also conveyed by his very weird monologues/voiceovers. Peter clearly spends his life trying to do damage control in Withnail’s wake, and in Withnail & I his is the more practical role. However, as well as looking after his abusive life-partner, he also has to deal with quite frankly the most hilarious and frightening and frighteningly hilarious and hilariously frightening series of come-ons ever from Monty (Richard “Uncle Vernon” Griffiths).

::DISCLAIMER:: It was the ’80s, and they didn’t know then that sexual harassment doesn’t become funny just because it’s two men. If that sort of thing is a trigger for you, you might want to stay away.

The dialogue is the best part about the film. No question – the script is award-worthy and should be studied by our young filmmakers as an example of How To Do It. It is funny, but towards the end, it gets very, personally sad. Withnail and Peter, and forgive me for insisting on my own interpretation here, say goodbye like broken-up lovers. They seem to have no expectation of seeing each other again, and it’s troubling – I don’t know – maybe they think Withnail will be found dead under a bin before Peter finishes his play. It’s well written, I can say that.

So, yes, gentle readers, I commend to you this humble motion picture, Withnail & I, because it will only make you feel better about your own life. And it’s funny. And Paul McGann is in it and he’s gorgeous. Look…

Hello, young Paul McGann. *You* can sit by *me*.

Intermission:

  • Did you notice the tweed everywhere? What about the eel down the trousers? How about the Camberwell Carrot – that’s hard to miss, right?
  • A partial list of what Withnail drinks during the course of the film: vodka, sherry, beer, more beer, wine, more wine, lighter fluid, more wine, scotch…
  • Withnail is a ferocious drunk, but he was played by the teetotaler Richard E. Grant. Finally convinced that he needed to get drunk at least once to have the proper insight into the character, Grant “filled a tumbler with vodka and topped it off with a bit of Pepsi”, then swilled the whole thing down. He was teased the next day by co-star Paul McGann and director Bruce Robinson, who assured him that he would never be so funny on film again.
  • Watch out for Ralph Brown, who played a very similar role (in perhaps the same costume) in Wayne’s World 2.
  • Although credited on screen only as “… and I”, Paul McGann’s character is named as “Marwood” in the script. It is widely believed that the character’s first name is Peter – at one point Withnail tells Monty either, “Peter’s got an audition” or “But he’s got an audition,” gesturing towards Paul McGann. Experts are divided [Louise insists on “Peter’s got an audition.” The name suits him.]
  • In the scene where Withnail ostensibly downs a bottle of lighter fluid, the can, which in rehearsals had been full of water, was full of vinegar. Director Bruce Robinson used vinegar on the take to get a better facial reaction from Grant. The vomiting was scripted and faked.
  • Originally written by Bruce Robinson to be a novel. Its conclusion is quite different from the film’s: after his soliloquy in the rain at the park, Withnail returns to the flat he shared with Marwood, loads the rifle he took from Monty’s “country home”, pours some wine (also taken from Monty) down its barrel, then puts the muzzle to his lips and drinks. He then pulls the trigger on the gun, killing himself.
  • In the tearoom scene, Richard E Grant breaks out laughing. This wasn’t scripted, but every time he spoke, he could hear the snorting of the dogs belonging to the old ladies at the table behind. He thought that this was someone laughing and kept corpsing. After too many re-takes, the director gave up and kept the laughter in.
  • During the motorway scenes, in the interior shots of the car, Paul McGann is seen to be driving, but in some exterior shots, the driver is Bruce Robinson, the director. The reason for this is that Paul McGann had only just passed his driving test when the film was made, and so was a bit wobbly on the motorway. Also, as he pulls away in London to set off for the Lake District, he stalls the car. This was unintentional, and was included anyway. The car has no windscreen wipers and only one headlight, which makes for safe driving…
  • The photograph of Richard Griffiths in Uncle Monty’s cottage is from The World Cup: A Captain’s Tale in which he played a football manager and referee.

Groovy Dialogue:

Withnail: I have some extremely distressing news.
I: I don’t want to hear it. I don’t want to hear anything. My God, it’s a nightmare out there, I tell you, a nightmare!
Withnail: We’ve just run out of wine; what are we going to do about it?

Withnail [looking at his tongue in a mirror]: Look at my tongue. It’s wearing a yellow sock.

Withnail: Right! I’m doing the washing up!
I: No, you can’t. It’s impossible, I swear to you. I’ve looked into it. Listen to me. There are things in there…there’s a teabag growing. You haven’t slept in sixty hours, you’re in no state to tackle it. Wait until the morning and we’ll go in together.
Withnail: It is the morning – stand aside!
I: I don’t think you understand. I think there may be something…alive.
Withnail: What do you mean? A rat?
I: Possibly, possibly.
Withnail: Then it shall rue the day!

Withnail: You’ve got an audition. Why can’t I get an audition?

Withnail: You’ve got soup. Why didn’t I get any soup?

I: My thumbs have gone weird. I’m in the middle of a bloody overdose!

Withnail: You’ve got antifreeze!
I: You bloody fool! You should never mix your drinks!

Danny the Dealer: You’re looking very beautiful. Have you been away? You could preach to the apostles looking like that. Have you got any food?

Withnail: I want something’s flesh!

Withnail: He’s in your room. It’s you he wants. Offer him yourself.

Withnail: Chin chin!

Withnail: We want the finest wines available to humanity!

Withnail: What is it, what have you found?
I: ‘Matter’.
Withnail: ‘Matter’? Where’s it coming from.
I: Don’t look – I’m dealing with it.
Withnail: I think we’ve been in here too long. I feel unusual. I think we should go outside.

Withnail: The thermostats. What have you done to them?
I: I haven’t touched them.
Withnail: Then why has my head gone numb? I must have some booze. I demand to have some booze!

Danny the Dealer: I don’t advise a hair cut 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.

Danny the Dealer: Why trust one drug and not the other? That’s politics, innit.

Withnail: There must and shall be aspirins.
I: Give me the key and get out of the way.
Withnail: If I don’t get aspirin I shall die here on this mountainside.

I: I’m not from London you know!
Old woman: I don’t care where you come from.
I: Not the attitude I’d been given to expect from the H E Bates novel I’d read. I thought they’d all be out the back drinking cider, discussing butter. Clearly a myth. Evidently country people and no more receptive to strangers than city dwellers.

I: You never discuss your family do you?
Withnail: I fail to see my family’s of any interest to you. I’ve absolutely no interest in yours. I dislike relatives in general and mine in particular.

(discussing a live chicken that has been left for them by a farmer)
I: Oy! Oy! Parkin’s been. There’s the supper!
Withnail: What are we supposed to do with that?
I: Eat it.
Withnail: Eat it? It’s alive!
I: Yeah, you’ve got to kill it.
Withnail: Me? I’m the firelighter and fuel collector.
I: Yeah, I know, but I got the logs in. It takes away your appetite just looking at it.
Withnail: No it doesn’t, I’m starving. How can we make it die?

(‘I’ is faced with a horny bull)
Parkin: Just run at it, shouting!
Withnail: Do as he says, start shouting. It won’t gore you.
I: A coward you are Withnail. An expert on bulls you are not!

Withnail: This place has become impossible. Nothing to eat, freezing cold and now a madman on the prowl outside with eels.

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