Weekly Classics: Withnail and I
Watch the trailer here.
All right, this is the plan. We get in there and get wrecked, then we eat a pork pie, then we drop a couple of Surmontil-50s each. That means we’ll miss out on Monday but come up smiling Tuesday morning.
This is the only movie I have been exposed to in my overly visual life that makes me burst out laughing even if it’s the 57th time I put it on. The English have this way of manipulating humour where they say the most ridiculous things in the most sophisticated manner to make them unnecessarily hilarious.
Here is a piece of work that is named Britain’s best comedy and that took Bruce Robinson seven years to write into a book and then change into a screenplay. Released in 1986, this semi-autobiographical flick is renown amongst students and rings true with anyone who has had the university experience. Of a kitchen so dirty you are advised to arm yourself before entering its hellish twilight zone of strange smells, matter oozing from the unknown and where ‘a teabag’s growing!’. Of hankering after whatever poison you can ingest to take you away from the infernal reality of daybreak and another day. Of no heating, no food, no money, no job. I think it’s quintessentially British to make an entire movie based on the lighter side of addiction, unemployment and poverty.
It’s London in 1969, it’s gray and forlorn, the puddles on the roads are large and unavoidable, and people are soberly sombre. Withnail (Richard E. Grant) and Marwood (the narrator) are two ‘nearly 30’ unemployable actors living in a house they have inhabited since they were students. They’re evidently also maintaining an attitude and lifestyle that has also not evolved since then. In Withnail, we see a selfish, self-entitled, spineless shady substance abuser whose greatest tragedy in life is being ‘out of wine.’ Marwood (Paul McGann) is a little more apprehensive and afraid of what reality must taste like. He has a palpable fear of what a life of accountability, stability and security will impose on him; ‘We are indeed drifting into the arena of the unwell. Making enemies of our own futures.’ They’re stuck in a rut, reclining in idleness and clutching to the last strands of ‘the greatest decade in the history of mankind’, the ghost of the 60’s and the wild abandon of ones student years.
Even though Marwood keeps insisting that him and Withnail are ‘in the same boat’, there is a certain proactive quality about the narrator – an efficaciousness towards getting rid of his present despairing situation. In the beginning of the movie we are shown that Marwood has had an audition whereas, Withnail seems to live from drink A to drink B, all the way to Z. So Marwood suggests that they leave, ‘go to the countryside … rejuvenate’. This is where Uncle Monty (Richard Griffiths) steps into the picture, the actor who many of you know as Uncle Vernon from the Harry Potter shenanigans. He is Withnails’ overly extravagant and avant-garde uncle whom Withnail is actively exploiting for his house in the countryside. Drinking all the way to the ‘Crow Crag’ their vacation receives them with torrential rain, no electricity, no food and no heating. So what can you do but set some furniture on fire and bribe a poacher to give you some grub, really? Their series of misadventures, misdemeanours and all-around misery is ceaselessly amusing. It’s hard not to laugh at two grown, outrageously drunk men threatening to fire an old woman in a restaurant they don’t own.
And of course Uncle Monty falls in love with Marwood. How could you not? His awkward grimace, his eyes filled with dread, his body pressed up against Withnail in the same bed when Monty barges in the door was all just overbearingly seductive.
Withnail and Marwood return to London as Marwood has had a call-back, something Withnail is trying not to look resentful about. And upon their return, they are greeted by a racoon-eyed deranged drug dealer in their bed and a formidable sized strange black man in their bath.
‘London is a country coming down from its trip’ and it appears as though our heroes are too. When you take a minute and stop laughing at the misfortunes of these two men using alcohol as a crutch and a shield – you can identify that there is a heavy feeling of loss and disillusionment in our protagonists. This was not how life was meant to turn out. The dishes were meant to be clean, the oven was meant to be rat free, the bills should have been paid, your friends were never meant to leave and there was supposed to be some notion, any notion, that life was in motion instead of being stagnant in a cesspool of alcohol and speed. If you’ve seen Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas you will understand the mentality behind the binging, the paranoia, the confusion and the profundity.
In a nutshell, overly enunciated words, recklessly bleak substance abuse, melancholy melodrama and all around hilarity at the well put misery of our protagonists.