Review: Withnail and I (1987)

Withnail & I (1987)
Dir: Bruce Robinson
Starring: Richard E. Grant, Paul McGann, Richard Griffiths, Ralph Brown

Bruce Robinson's directorial debut in 1987 came in the form of a blackly comedic British film called Withnail and I. Over 20 years later, the film has a huge cult status amongst fans, and Robinson arguably did his best work here. Inspired by Robinson's old friend, Vivian MacKerrell,the plot revolves around two out of work actors living in Camden Town at the end of the booziest decade of the century: the sixties. It follows the unnamed "I" as an anxiety-ridden young man dealing with the follies of his eccentric friend Withnail, who is a fall-down drunk from an aristocratic family. When the two decide to take a weekend trip to the countryside, all hell breaks loose, exacerbated by Withnail's archly homosexual Uncle Monty in hot pursuit of our narrator. The film is undoubtedly marked by the triumphant performance of Richard E. Grant as Withnail, who managed to portray a staggering, elegantly wasted man at the end of his tether albeit being teetotal himself. He is undeniably supported by the fantastic cast, be it Ralph Brown as the adept drug dealer Danny or Richard Griffiths as the Baudelaire-quoting Uncle Monty. However, Grant truly carries the film in his heartbreaking tragicomic role; his petulant flair for dramatics incites laughter, but in it lie the makings of a talented actor destroyed by his addiction.

The only man who outshines Withnail himself is our writer and director, Bruce Robinson, who, in penning this semi autobiographical tale, created an utter master-class of a screenplay. The dialogue is sharp, witty, and iconic, full of dry humor and quotable one-liners. Not a moment drags or droops, and the characters are engaging and charming in a way that characters so rarely are; a way that encourages the audience (or at least myself) to revisit them consistently. The brilliance lies not only in the near-perfect writing and hilarity of the antics, but also in its multilayering of subject matter. Although at first glance, Withnail may seem confined to a very small slice of life in Britain in 1969, it speaks on many levels. It is a film about male relationships - there is a notable lack of female cast. It is a film about the struggle to articulate our talents and ambitions amidst the squalor of poverty or the windfalls of addiction. It is, undoubtedly, a film very much about both the sixties and about the time in which it was created; Robinson has admitted that "I" cutting his hair at the film's conclusion was a symbol of oncoming Thatcherism. Danny points out that at the end of the decade, they had "failed to paint it black", and the question Robinson poses to us must be -- have we ever succeeded at doing so?

"I" escapes the bohemian squalor of their lives to succeed, whereas Withnail remains; his only friend a bottle of '53 Margaux. The film paints a bleak portrait of the bohemian life and its implications; perhaps that it is not maintainable, or perhaps simply that the descent into alcoholism is an ugly and formidable thing. Regardless, the deeply character-driven tale of Withnail & I is not so much cautionary as it is personal. In what is perhaps one of the most compelling and poignant last scenes ever filmed, Withnail stands in the rain, before the wolves at Regents Park zoo, howling a soliloquy from Hamlet. It will be his most impressive performance, but the wolves are unimpressed, and Withnail, his talent forever curtailed, turns away in defeat. His frame grows smaller as it moves away and we are swallowing the collective lumps in our throats as the credits roll.


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