‘Withnail and I’ Film Review
It’s elegantly and unapologetically obscene.
Let me tell you about Withnail and I…
A favourite among students and in the underground film scene. Despite lurking in the dusty corners of society, this British cult classic has certainly stood the test of time. In fact it’s more popular now than it was when it first tarnished our silver screens with it’s grimy brilliance back in 1987. The sour escapades of Withnail and Marwood began over four decades ago in a mouldy and malcontent corner of Camden, and still they linger in many minds… but why? Follow me as I delve into the dark, dank and somewhat pungent history of Withnail and I to find out what made this humble film into a cult classic that’s well and truly stuck.
It all started in the late 1960s, the depressing end of an exceptional era, with a twenty-something year old out of work actor by the name of Bruce Robinson. Seemingly surviving on booze and the odd saveloy, they lived in conditions that left an awful lot to be desired – no doubt with a sink that involved ‘sinew in nicotine base’. In a flat in deepest darkest Camden town, Bruce spent his days residing with acting friends, all of them just about scraping through by the skin of their teeth. One of these acting friends was the incomparable, and deliciously bitter, Vivian MacKerrell, later to be the inspiration for Withnail.
Bruce Robinson explains, ‘I didn’t sit there with a tape recorder and a notepad writing down what Viv said. I just took his acidity, his pompous cowardice, and his very pungent sense of humour, and wrote that character.’ A book was written by Bruce in this time about the melancholy exploits of himself, Vivian, and his other friends. Bruce described it as, ‘a particularly vicious winter, and here I was with no heat, an Oxfam overcoat and a light bulb.’ But little did he know then, that he was creating a masterpiece.
A few years later, Bruce had finally emerged from his decaying flat and left festering in cold corners with lightbulbs and Oxfam overcoats behind him. Bruce was paid by Moderick Schreiber – a wealthy oil heir wanting to break into the film industry, to turn his unpublished book into the semi autobiographical screenplay which was to be the backbone of Withnail and I. Bruce did so in the early 1980s. From here the script was passed to George Harrison (yes, the one from The Beatles), who owned the production company, Handmade Films, which had previously produced Monty Python’s Life of Brian and Time Bandits. With funding from George, producer Paul Heller and with Bruce in the director’s seat, after a few hiccups and a bumpy start, history was about to made in the form of Withnail and I.
But who was to play the role of the acidic Withnail? Daniel Day-Lewis, Kenneth Branagh and Bill Nighy were all in line for this part, but Richard E. Grant had the edge, and was cast, as long as he ‘lost half of him’ in the words of Bruce. Richard lost all the weight and kept the part which kick started his incredibly successful career.
Paul McGann was cast as the eponymous ‘I’ – an important role as he had to portray Bruce Robinson himself. After being fired, rehired and fired yet again by Bruce because of his scouse accent, he was told to lose it, and so returned with a home counties accent and the legendary drunken duo was born.
The final piece of the puzzle was to be filled by the transcendent Richard Griffiths. The most well known actor in the film at the time, he was chosen to play the role of Withnail’s predatory Uncle Monty, who is famed for making advances on the more than horrified ‘I’ throughout the duration of the film.
Withnail and I reached the silver screens it had been destined for, and (much to everyone’s dismay) was a washout. It folded. Somewhat like Withnail after his adventurous shot of lighter fluid. A few years later the film was accessible to more through it’s release on television and VHS. You either get it, or you don’t. It seems the majority of cinema viewers didn’t. But the television watchers almost certainly did and from here it snowballed and has been at cult status ever since.
Richard has gone on to be in over one hundred films and television programmes after Withnail and I, including ‘Bram Stoker’s Dracula’ and the fantastic ‘How to Get Ahead in Advertising’, also produced by Handmade Films. Paul McGann has also gone on to be in many films, such as ‘Paper Mask’ and has played a part as the 8th Doctor in the incredibly successful sci-fi series Doctor Who. Richard Griffiths had previously been in many films such as the well known ‘Chariots of Fire’ and went on to be in many more including ‘Sleepy Hollow’ and ‘The History Boys’.
But it almost seems that despite all of their success, they will forever be remembered for the distinguished parts they played in this iconic film. What is behind this fondness and high regard that so many hold for Withnail and I? It’s a hard question to answer. There’s simply something so unique and indescribable about it that makes it so good. If you look closely at the film you see that it actually has no real plot or cohesive storyline. It’s just two guys talking, but what makes you stay is the incredibly witty dialogue and that same thing that would make you stay with a group of friends. For instance, there’s not a lot happening but you’re just happy to be in their company and listen. You don’t know what’s going to happen, none of you do. You just hang around to find out. No other film has done anything like this before and no other could or will ever again. It’s one of those one-time, unrepeated, outstanding moments. An enigma of a film.
Bruce Robinson describes his view of Withnail and I – ‘What I think it does do is touch on that moment that we’ve all had, where we’re all broke, all starving, all aspiring and all knowing that it might not work out in our lives.’ – and I am inclined to believe he is right.
By Amy Jones