Recommended Viewing Situation:
When the heating is off and there’s nothing to drink but lighter fluid.
Running Time: 107 minutes.
Format: 35mm Film.
Director: Bruce Robinson.
Writer: Bruce Robinson.
Cinematographer: Peter Hannan.
Awards: Best Screenplay at Evening Standard British Film Awards.
Trigger warning: Threat of rape.
Content note: This film contains the use of racist, homophobic and transphobic slurs.
As much as it might be exaggerated and farcical, Withnail and I (1987) is a film you will relate to on a deep level if you’ve ever found yourself in bed wearing three jumpers and fingerless gloves, working on an essay and wondering how to bleed a radiator, at a stalemate where none of your housemates will do the washing up, or fishing pennies out of various pockets and bags in order to buy gin. In fact, the frenetic atmosphere of this film doesn’t seem very out of the ordinary at all on your third sleepless night in a row, when your face is numb with cold and there’s more rubbish on top of your kitchen bin than there is inside it. And it only speaks to you more when you’ve left behind the decadent poverty of student life, spread your bright new wings and walked them to the job centre to sign on. The strange sense of realism that anchors the film may be attributed to the fact that it is based on the real life of the writer, Bruce Robinson.
The film follows two out-of-work actors, Withnail (Richard E. Grant) and Marwood, the eponymous “I” (Paul McGann), living in Camden at the end of the ‘60s. When their sink is so full of filth that they suspect there may be something living in it and that they ‘are, indeed, drifting into the arena of the unwell,’ “I” decides that a holiday is in order. They pay a visit to Withnail’s wealthy uncle Monty (Richard Griffiths), and play up their acting careers in the hope that it will appeal to his image of himself as an aesthete and convince him to lend them his cottage in Penrith. They are successful, but when they arrive in the countryside it transpires that the cottage is dilapidated and they don’t know how to fend for themselves outside of the city. They offend people at every turn, argue constantly, and “I” reaches the end of his patience long before the end of the film, when Monty, who has formed a romantic attachment to him, arrives in Penrith and begins an aggressive attempt at seduction.
High and hysterical, the tone of the film is set by Withnail, while the viewer, like “I”, is dragged behind, anxious but glad to be included in the fun. Though McGann and Griffiths are so ideal for their parts as to seem completely natural, Grant’s performance as the desperate and dynamic alcoholic is particularly impressive when one considers that not only was Withnail his first film role, but he had also never been drunk prior to filming due to an intolerance to alcohol.
Withnail and I might be one of the most quotable films of all time, alongside The Princess Bride (1987) and Mean Girls (2004), and almost every line is guaranteed to get a laugh, but if you’re still a struggling artist/writer/student, make sure you watch it when you’re disposed to laugh at yourself, not when you’re liable to end up examining your life choices or drunkenly reciting Hamlet to wolves in the park. Good luck in all your creative endeavours, kids.
– Ellie Exton