Withnail and I Reviews
Withnail is a Harrow educated dilettante, and rather upper crust; his flatmate Marwood is a grammar school boy with a slightly more realistic outlook on life. To escape from the squalor of their grim, unemployed, existence in Camden Town, soaked in a near lethal cocktail of alcohol and drugs, the desperate pair call upon the generosity of Withnail's uncle Montague and secure the use of his cottage in the country for a weekend.
Uncle Monty is an eccentric middle-aged homosexual, who prefers vegetables to flowers. He considers that 'flowers are essentially tarts - prostitutes for the bees', and wears a radish in his buttonhole in preference to a flower. He grows vegetables in pots in his Chelsea house, and makes suggestive references to 'firm young carrots'.
Withnail (excellently played by Richard E. Grant), persuades Uncle Monty (a superb Richard Griffiths) to lend Marwood (a convincing Paul McGann) and him his cottage in the country for the weekend.
Their exploits at the cottage, and in Penrith where they spend their Wellington boot money on booze and try to sober up in a gentile tearoom are memorable, witty and entertaining. The incongruous uncle Monty reciting Baudelaire in the Cumbrian hills, seeking carnal knowledge of Marwood (apparently coerced by the cowardly and treacherous Withnail), are testament to the writing skills and humour of author and director, Bruce Robinson.
The film's soundtrack brings us 'A Whiter Shade of Pale', played by King Curtis on the Saxophone, 'My Friend' and 'Walk hand in Hand', performed by Charlie Kunz, 'Schubert's Piano Sonata in B Flat Major' performed by Leslie Pearson, 'All Along the Watchtower' and 'Voodoo Chile', by Jimi Hendrix, 'Hang Out the Stars in Indiana', performed by Al Bowlly, and 'While My Guitar Gently Weeps', by the late lamented George Harrison, who provided much of the financial backing for this memorable film.
This is a thoroughly entertaining 108 minutes of humorous entertainment, a few too many drinks, a convincing 60's atmosphere, superb performances from the excellent cast, and music to make your heart, and your guitar, gently weep. Thank you, George Harrison.
'We've gone on holiday by mistake.' Love it.
Two unemployed thespians opt for a holiday in the country at the cottage of an over-sexed uncle.
For me this is a film of thirds. I spent one third of the time asking "what did he say?", one third asking "what does that mean?" and one third laughing my arse off. For those viewers who are painfully American, like myself, I heartily recommend enabling the subtitles.
The great success of Withnail & I is that is manages to be a film about the nature of actors and acting without every descending into outright pretension. This is remarkable when we realise that the film is largely autobiographical, with ?I? being Robinson and Withnail being Vivian MacKerrell, a young actor who died of throat cancer a few years after its release. The film manages to achieve this through a very strong balance of the arty and the gritty, marrying flamboyant characters with dark circumstances and bleak, often poignant humour.
The script is a bizarre and beautiful balance of ornate theatrical jokes and street slang, silver-tongued metaphors and toilet humour. One moment Richard E. Grant ?demands to have some booze? and downs lighter fluid when none can be found; the next sees Richard Griffiths babbling on about Eton and describing roses as ?prostitutes for the bees?. This means that the characters and their way with words are never allowed to escape their grim realities, and hence we continue to care about them even in their most arty moments. We aren?t turned off, for instance, by Withnail?s blatant and obnoxious snobbery; we feel sorry for him throughout the film, and the closing speech (in which he recites from Hamlet) is truly brilliant.
Likewise, the film has some really simple and gritty visuals with effective camera work, which allow the story to effectively tell itself. The look of the film is very similar to A Private Function, in that they are both period pieces about individuals on the lower rungs of the social ladder. The actors? faces are dimly lit and grimy, the walls are yellowing, the rooms are musty and hidden by carefully placed shadows ? the whole landscape has an air of decay to it which takes you into the heart of the story. Much like the tumble-down back streets in The French Connection or the coal fields in Get Carter, you feel like you?re really in the pubs, in the houses, among the social turmoil. You feel, in other words, like you?re in a world which is dying.
In many ways, Withnail & I is about the passing of an age. Monty quips that he and the boys are the last of a breed, as actors at any rate. The drug dealer gets high while explaining that the 1960s is over and that the young have ?failed to paint it black?. As the film carries on both the hedonistic optimism of Withnail and the self-delusion of ?I? die very slowly; the former is left despondently in the rain, while the latter moves on to a better and more ordered life. The fact that the film is able to tackle these subjects without being either rose-tinted or overly sentimental is testament to Robinson?s honesty as a writer and a filmmaker.
What is equally impressive is the level of humour sustained throughout the piece, so that it manages to be simultaneously elegiac and hilarious. There are several brilliant set-pieces, such as Withnail attempting to catch fish with a shotgun, or the scene in the tea room where he demands ?the finest wines in all humanity?, or indeed his deadpan antics driving the Jag back to London. But just as important, and as funny, is the comic interplay in the dialogue. The conversations between Grant and McGann range from the stupidity of Manchester to the perils of being an understudy, and they are all executed with dry, acerbic wit and panache from the performers.
Richard E. Grant gives his all in the film, putting in a tour de force performance which he has yet to top, for all his great work in The Scarlet Pimpernel and Gosford Park. Grant famously was (and is) tee-total ? to simulate the experience of Withnail he was taken on an all-night binge by the crew, and in the lighter fluid scene he was forced to drink vinegar during the take. McGann?s performance is just as compelling; his reading of the graffiti in the pub toilets will simultaneously shred your nerves and make you laugh out loud. And Richard Griffiths is on very good form, to the point at which he is simultaneously creepy and endearing. His Monty represents what Withnail will most likely grow into ? a self-pitying, repressed has-been, yearning for past glories which don?t really exist.
The problems with Withnail & I are unusual for such a low-budget personal work. It is slightly too long, feeling the need to introduce a lot more secondary characters than is perhaps necessary. The poacher, the farmer and the drug dealer all make for interesting comic diversions, but their extended presence is not really developed and unfortunately means that Withnail is sidelined for a lot of the middle third. There are also quite a lot of similar scenes, usually of the two eating intercut with their meetings with the locals. They?re well staged, but as more examples come along you wonder as to the cumulative effect they are having on the plot. Many of the fleeting conversations could have been inserted in any order to much the same effect, meaning the intense weekend in Monty?s cottage loses some of its intensity.
These quibbles aside, there is no doubt that Withnail & I remains an important cult film which is funny, poignant, meaningful and very well-executed. The central performances are great, and are complimented by solid if rough direction which more than does justice to the source. It is a shame that the careers of neither the main actors nor the director have completely flourished as a result ? for all McGann?s subsequent work, including an underrated turn as Doctor Who, he has yet to top this. One hopes that Robinson?s new film, The Rum Diary, will be a return to form for him. Based on the strengths of this, he deserves another hit late in his career.