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The main plot follows two unemployed young actors, Withnail (Richard E. Grant) and “I” (Paul McGann) who live in a squalid flat in Camden, London in 1969. Needing a holiday, they travel to a country cottage in Cumbria belonging to Withnail’s flamboyantly gay uncle, Monty. They are soon to realise the holiday will be less recuperative than they hoped.
The role of Withnail was Grant's first in film and launched him into a successful career. The film also features performances by well known British actors Richard Griffiths and Ralph Brown.Robinson's script is largely autobiographical. McGann's character is Robinson, while Withnail is based on Vivian MacKerrell, a close friend of Robinson's with whom he shared a house. Uncle Monty is loosely based on the Italian movie director Franco Zeffirelli, who subjected Robinson to much unwanted amorous attention when he was a young actor. Robinson threw four or five years of his real life into the script, condensing them into the two weeks seen in the film.