“I loathe those Russian plays, all full of women staring out of windows, whining about ducks going to Moscow.” —Withnail, in Withnail and I
What a bunch of wankers. I’m talking about a certain sub-genre of recent British cinema, of course. Has any national cinema come up with a more sordid lot of human beings than we’ve seen in films such as Alex Cox’s Sid & Nancy (1986), Mike Leigh’s Naked (1993), Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting (1995), and Ke\m Allen’s Twin Town (1997)? All of these movies are inhabited by amoral, drug-abusing, foul-mouthed, cynical losers whose possibly sole redeeming virtue is that they remind the rest of us that our own problems aren’t that bad after all. Do wankers make good cinema? Judging by the success of all four of the above films, one would have to answer that question in the affirmative. I wouldn’t. I don’t like these people. Life is too short to spend it in their company. Nor am I sufficiently depressed at the moment to require the spectacle of their misery to comfort me. And if it’s perverse humour I’m looking for, I’ll just tune into Monty Python reruns and watch penguins explode.
That said, I’m a little embarrassed to go on and admit that this month’s review is about a movie inhabited by amoral, drug-abusing, foul-mouthed cynical losers. Am I being hypocritical? Janus-faced? Pecksmffian? Of course not. What we have in the case of Bruce Robinson’s Withnail and I (1987), based on his own autobiographical novel, is an extremely rare case of bassesse oblige— defined for the first time in this column as the dramatic obligation of the highly-educated but self-loathing to stand on their dignity while acting selfishly and dishonorably. All wankers are not created equal.
The time is the end of the Swingin’ Sixties. The tide of cultural refugees is just beginning to roll out. Withnail (Richard E. Grant) and Marwood (Paul McGann) are unemployed young London actors who have chosen to deal with their lack of success by consuming mass quantities of licit and illicit substances. The London flat they share is in a state of terminal disorder; the dirty dishes in the sink attain an almost mythical order of slovenliness. A rat would be nervous here, uneasy about the evolutionary potential of whatever was breeding in those heaped-up pots and pans. Catherine Deneuve played a character who lived in this kind of setting in Roman Polanski’s Repulsion; she wound up cracking and turning into a psychotic killer. Withnail and Marwood, through a haze of drugs and alcohol, are worried about following suit. The only reason they haven’t yet reached terminal velocity is that they’ve got one another. Comradery is a purchase on sanity.
The dirty dishes will win out in the end, however. Marwood and Withnail know this and are terrified. As a pall of despair descends, Withnail has a revelation: “What we need is harmony, fresh air, stuff like that! We can’t go on like this!” Withnail has got a randy, porcine, classics- spouting sybaritic uncle named Monty who happens to own a cottage in England’s pristine Lake District. The boys con Monty into giving them the key, and they’re off to Wordsworthland.
As if. Scenery’s one thing, a cottage without water, heat, electricity, or food is another. Nor are their surly rustic neighbors much help. After one farmwife slams the door in his face, Marwood notes that it’s “not the attitude I’ve come to expect from H E. Bates novels. I thought they’d all be out back drinking cider and discussing butter.” An encounter with the local poacher, Jake (Michael Elphick), ends in galloping paranoia and Withnail’s immortal line, “Don’t threaten me with a dead fish!”
When Monty arrives unexpectedly, bringing an entire larder and wine cellar, things seem to look up. The euphoria’s fleeting. In his desperation to get the key to Monty’s cottage, Withnail had set Marwood up as a likely object for his uncle’s affections. Hey, what are friends for?
Friendship and friendship’s betrayal are at the heart of what gives Withnail and I it’s perhaps-not- immediately-obvious redeeming social value. They’re certainly what gives the closing scene its power. This movie is about more than two wastrels doing the scurrilous things that wastrels do. When Marwood, near the film’s end, gets the good news that he’s landed a leading role, he walks. Withnail winds up losing the only thing that really matters in his life. The comedy’s finished. The final scene of Withnail and I has the wounded dignity one associates more with Thomas Hardy than with the Goon Squad. Standing in the rain, staring past the spiked and crooked bars of an iron fence at the zoo, Withnail’s stream of invective suddenly dries up. Four letter words are useless. The only words good enough to keep him standing are Hamlet’s:
“I have of late, but wherefore I know not, lost all my mirth., .and, indeed, it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory; this most excellent canopy, the air, look you! this brave o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire: why, it appeareth nothing to me but a foul and pestilent congregation of vapors. What a piece of work is man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties…in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god: the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals; and yet to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me; nor woman neither.”
Richard Grant’s Withnail is an affecting paradox. A beggared aristocrat, he is defeated but every line he utters passionately denies that defeat. I kept flashing back to the line from Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” that talks about “Napoleon in rags and the language that he used.” Withnail’s like the buming-but-still-impressive ruin of a once great city after the barbarians have passed through. In the midst of an episode of boorishness at an afternoon tea party, he announces to the shocked old ladies gathered around, “We want the finest wines available to humanity. We want them here, and we want them now!” Spotting an “accident black spot” sign on the motorway, Withnail cries out that “There are no accidents! They’re throwing themselves into the road gladly. Throwing themselves into the road to escape all this hideousness!”
I love the utterly incongruous language of this film. It’s as if everyone’s infected with eloquence. Monty meditates that “The old order changeth, yielding place to new; God fulfills himself in many ways and soon, I suppose, I shall be swept away by some vulgar little tumor….My boys, we’re the end of an age. Here we are, we three, perhaps the last island of beauty in the world.” Even the film’s lowest life form, a stoned-to-the-gills drug dealer named Danny (Michael Elphick), seems to use the few neurons he still has left to cadence his speech like an Oxford don lecturing on Elizabethan litotes.
Withnail and I was produced by ex-Beatle George Harrison for Handmade Films, the excellent independent film company he founded to ensure that small but intriguing movies made it into the theatres. Any of the thirty-odd pictures with the Handmade logo is worth checking out. Withnail and I also credits one Richard Starkey, MBE, as a (musical?) advisor. You might know him better as Ringo Starr.
Looking Back & Second Thoughts
I’ve attached some of my favorite lines from the Withnail & I screenplay below this short entry. Really, I could have just included the whole screenplay. That’s essentially what you get if you look at the “Quotes” section of the Imdb entry for the film. And there’s just no way of communicating in print the insane gusto with which these lines are delivered. What I realized as I watched the film again recently was that this is the closest anyone has ever gotten to capturing the spirit of Hunter S. Thompson on film. And I’m not excepting Terry Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) and Bruce Robinson’s own The Rum Diary (2011). I’ve loved Thompson’s writing since my university days and, although I didn’t acknowledge the kinship in my original review of Withnail & I, I think that unconsciously it was what made the picture work for me. I know I’m not imagining things because—lo and behold!—Ralph Steadman’s name comes up prominently towards the end of the closing credits to the film. I’m sure there’s a perfectly logic explanation for Ralph’s name’s being there, but I prefer to think it’s the universe backing me up.
Bruce Robinson only directed three films after this one, including the one based on Hunter S. Thompson’s novel. He was nominated for an Oscar for his screenplay for The Killing Fields, and was a winner for the same screenplay at the BAFTA and Writers Guild of America Awards. All four of Withnail’s lead actors have had the kind of long & successful careers that Withnail himself despaired of ever enjoying.
Just two final brief comments & one recommendation before I head off and act out a couple of scenes from the film for the sheer perverse unadulterated pleasure of it. Peter Hannan’s cinematography, gritty and on the dark side, was perfectly keyed to the film. The music on the soundtrack was one of the best matches to the visuals & screenplay that I’ve ever come across. And the recommendation? Read Roger Ebert’s review of Withnail & I. As is so often the case, no one says it better. You’ll find the review here: https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/withnail-and-i-1987
Now let the boys speak for themselves:
Withnail: Right, you fucker, I’m going to do the washing up!
Marwwod: No, no, you can’t. It’s impossible, I swear it. I’ve looked into it. Listen to me, listen to me! There are things in there, there’s a tea-bag growing! You haven’t slept in sixty hours, you’re in no state to tackle it. Wait till the morning, we’ll go in together.
Withnail: This IS the morning. Stand aside!
Marwood: [holding him back] You don’t understand. I think there may be something living in there, I think there may be something alive.
Withnail: What do you mean? A rat?
Marwood: It’s possible, it’s possible.
Withnail: Then the fucker will rue the day!
Marwood: [voiceover] Even a stopped clock gives the right time twice a day. And for once I’m inclined to believe that Withnail is right. We are indeed drifting into the arena of the unwell. Making an enemy of our own future. What we need is harmony, fresh air, stuff like that.
Monty: Do you like vegetables? I’ve always been fond of root crops but I only started to grow last summer. I happen to think the cauliflower more beautiful than the rose. Do you grow?
Monty: Oh, you little traitors. I think the carrot infinitely more fascinating than the geranium. The carrot has mystery. Flowers are essentially tarts. Prostitutes for the bees. There is, you’ll agree, a certain ‘je ne sais quoi’ oh so very special about a firm, young carrot.
Withnail: This place is uninhabitable.
Marwood: Give it a chance. It’s got to warm up.
Withnail: Warm up? We may as well sit round this cigarette. This is ridiculous. We’ll be found dead in here next spring.
Marwood: Parkin’s been. There’s the supper.
[a live chicken is standing on the table]
Withnail: What are we supposed to do with that?
Marwood: Eat it.
Withnail: Eat it? Fucker’s alive.
Marwood: Yeah, I know that, you’ve got to kill it.
Withnail: Me? I’m the firelighter and fuel collector.
Marwood: Yeah, I know, but I got the logs in.
[they get up and approach it]
Marwood: It takes away your appetite just looking at it.
Withnail: No it doesn’t. I’m starving. How can we make it die?
Marwood: You got to throttle him. Listen, I think you should strangle it instantly in case it starts trying to make friends with us.
Withnail: All right, get hold of it. You hold it down, I’ll strangle it.
Marwood: I can’t. It’s those dreadful beady eyes, they stare you out.
Withnail: It’s a bloody chicken! Just think of it with bacon across its back.