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Lunch » Tags » Movies » Reviews » Withnail & I » User review

Another pair of pints, please...

  • Aug 10, 2010
Rating:
+5
I think every movie fan has at least one film in their favourites list that they think only they truly love and appreciate. A film that, when mentioned in conversation, nobody else appears to have seen, or if they have seen it, they just didn't seem to "get" in the same way; a film that inspires such devotion that, when a fellow fan is encountered, immediate (and seemingly endless) gushing and quoting ensues. For me, one of those films is Withnail & I.

I first saw it when I purchased it on VHS sometime in the mid 1990's. I had read good things about it, heard good things about it, and I knew it had a very dedicated cult following, so I was more than a little intrigued to see it. Before the cassette had time to rewind and leave the VCR, I was full convert to the cult of Withnail & I. 15 years on, I'm still a devotee.

The greatness of this film is mostly down to one man: Writer and director, Bruce Robinson.
By the time Withnail & I went into production in 1986, Robinson was already an accomplished actor and screenwriter. He appeared in a string of movies in the late 1960's and throughout the 1970's, including Franco Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet (1968), but grew weary of life as an actor and turned to writing. His screenplay for The Killing Fields (1984) earned him a BAFTA Award and an Oscar nomination.
The genesis of Withnail & I came from a semi-autobiographical novel Robinson wrote in 1969, based on his experiences living as an out of work actor. Though the novel went unpublished, he was asked to turn it into a screenplay in the early 1980's by a wealthy businessman looking to break into the film industry, and half the financing was secured to put the film into production with Robinson as director. George Harrison's HandMade Films, who had already financed and distributed a number of successful British movies, including Monty Python's Life of Brian (1979) and Time Bandits (1981), agreed to supply the remaining funds and distribute the film. The film had a low budget, requiring Robinson to re-invest some of his fee back into the production in order to shoot more scenes and get the film completed. Despite the difficulties, the film was eventually released in 1987.


Bruce Robinson (centre) with actors Richard E. Grant and Paul McGann.

In a nutshell, the film is a comedy/drama about two out of work actor friends, Withnail (Richard E. Grant) and Marwood (Paul McGann), living in squalor in 1969 London, who go on holiday to the rural north of England, staying at a cottage belonging to Withnail's flamboyantly gay uncle, Monty (Richard Griffiths). Not the most exciting of plots, I hear you cry. That might be true, but this isn't a film about plot, it's about character. The film is rather bleak at times and much of the humor is pitch black. This isn't the kind of comedy where jokes are signposted. Think Coen Brothers rather than Farrelly Brothers.

Robinson's writing is, quite simply, sublime. Practically every line is weighted to perfection and it's riddled with wit and pathos. I confess that I am enough of a Withnail & I geek that I went out and bought the screenplay in book form, which is something I'm not accustomed to doing. Yes, the script is THAT good. It's sharp, literate, witty, poignant, laugh-out-loud hilarious and infinitely quotable.
Robinson also does a great job of directing his own material. Shot using a lot of natural light, the film has a grittiness and cracked beauty that matches the material perfectly.

The performances in this film are all top drawer. Richard E. Grant, in his film debut, more than rises to the challenge of playing the flamboyant, arrogant alcoholic, Withnail - a character Robinson based on a close friend and former roommate. It's a wonderful performance, made more remarkable given the knowledge that Grant is a dedicated teetotaler.
Paul McGann has one of the least "showy" roles in the film, but he makes Marwood likable and sympathetic, which helps to ground and centre the film when it could easily descend into farce.  He and Grant play off each other brilliantly. You really believe in their on-screen friendship.
Richard Griffiths' Uncle Monty is wonderful creation - theatrical, eccentric, predatory and tragic. He very nearly steals the entire film.
Another stand-out performance comes from Ralph Brown, who plays philosophising drug dealer, Danny. Anyone who has seen Wayne's World 2 (1993) will already be somewhat familiar with this character as Brown essentially recycled it for that film.



The soundtrack to this film is worth mentioning. The score itself is suitably eccentric and very moving at times. Hendrix's "All Along the Watchtower" and "Voodoo Child (Slight Return)" are used brilliantly, along with a few other rock tracks that help to evoke the period.

Being a huge fan of this film, I would certainly recommend it to anyone and everyone (except children!), but I feel some would find it a bit too idiosyncratic and maybe too bleak. The comedy is very dark and it has a very British wit and sensibility. If you're a fan of the Coen Brothers, or character-based comedy in general, then I think you'll find much to appreciate here.
Exquisitely written, brilliantly acted, wonderfully made... and superlative exhausting, Withnail & I, in my humble opinion, is one of the finest British films of all time.

Now, where did I leave my drink? Chin chin!

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August 10, 2010
Grant's one of my favorite actors; no idea this was his debut. I only saw this once but it stuck with me. My wife hated it, however-- it does seem a lad's film somehow, raffish!
August 10, 2010
I love Grant's work too. If you ever get the chance, you should (if you haven't already) read his book "With Nails". It's a collection of extracts from the diaries he kept while shooting the movies he's starred in. It's honest, insightful and often very funny.
August 11, 2010
CreamT, does this have the screenplay of Withnail in it? Thanks for the tip and again for this great review. Perhaps follow it up with another one featuring Robinson's work as a whole?
August 11, 2010
Sadly, the script is not included in "With Nails", but you can get it separately. Maybe I will do a piece on Robinson soon. He's a charismatic guy who's had an interesting career. I'm greatly looking forward to his movie adaptation of Hunter Thompson's "The Rum Diary", starring Johnny Depp, which will be released later this year.
 
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Simon Lee Tranter ()
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Withnail and I is a 1986 British comedy/drama film written and directed by Bruce Robinson, partially based on his life living as struggling actor in the late 1960s. The film has been described as "one of Britain's biggest cult films".

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.

Withnail & I is an adaptation of an unpublished novel written by Robinson in the winter of 1969. Actor friend Don Hawkins passed a copy of the manuscript to his friend, the wealthy oil heir Moderick ...
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