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|Withnail & I
by MP Bartley
'Withnail & I' is probably the definition of a 'cult' film. By this, you could say that a cult film is one where, the first time you watch it, you're not quite sure why everybody raves about it. But it's watchable and you'll probably try to catch it again someday. But then, something about it nags at you and you watch it again, this time noticing little quirks and lines of dialogue that really stick with you. And then you start to watch it regularly, simply because it offers up something new each time, and you get hooked on it. Now, THAT is a cult movie, and that is the beauty of 'Withnail & I'.Camden, London, 1968. Withnail (Richard E Grant) and his best friend and flatmate, the unnamed 'I' of the film (Paul McGann) are struggling actors on the point of destitution. Their flat looks ready to be condemned and this isn't helped by the fact that Withnail is a full-blown, self-destructive alcoholic and I is seemingly only a few steps behind. To escape their predicament, they escape to the desolate countryside of Penrith and take a holiday, using the crumbling cottage of Withnail's uncle Monty, a raging homosexual who takes an immense fancy to I. Then, they come home again.
"If you never see this comedy, you will rue the day!"
And that's it. There's no farcical, convoluted plot of mistaken identities or any other cliche of the comedy genre, it's simply a film that hangs out with the two lead characters and gets its jokes from there. Even the sub-plot of Monty's crush on I, which would be huge running joke in lesser comedies, is more of a throwaway couple of jokes.
Instead, writer/director Bruce Robinson, offers up a British comedy that has a unique place in a lot of people's hearts and is a different world to the London and England of Richard Curtis and Hugh Grant. There's no sunny, panoramic views of London or the countryside, no nice, suburban, middle-classe homes to rest our eyes upon, but a vivid and seedy slice of life. Withnail's flat is truly a disgusting hovel, with the kitchen simply buried under months of uncleaned crockery, and I reduced to drinking coffee with a spoon from a bowl, while Withnail smears his body with Deep Heat to try and stave off the biting cold. Naturally, they have no heating or money. And even their trip to the countryside is ruined by the constant downpour.
'Withnail & I' positively revels in the grime and grease of both the characters lives and their drinking habits as Withnail is forced to sate his thirst with a range of drinks from lighter fluid to quadruple whiskeys. But Robinson doesn't seek to either glamourise their self-destructive lives or to patronisingly point out the danger of it. They are who they are, and Robinson is clever enough to know that 'Withnail & I' doesn't need to preach down to its audiences. Withnail positively revels in his behaviour, while I is trying to back away from it, and no more needs to be said about it. It's this lack of an obvious "message" about their behaviour, that enables Robinson to instead focus on the killingly funny aspects of their lives and it's these moments that are layered throughout the film, and only reveal themselves on multiple viewings.
Just try to find a 'Withnail & I' fan and quote him these lines, and see what reaction you get:
"Don't threaten me with a dead fish"
"The fucker's alive!"
Chances are, it'll be a huge grin of recognition, as 'Withnail & I' is a film that feels very personal, but hugely, deeply funny. As the drunken Withnail causes chaos from a tea-room ("We demand the finest wines known to humanity...") to a police urine-test, it's a humour that sinks in and will still cause silent giggles thinking about it days after.
It wouldn't work however, if the cast were unable to elevate the material into the subtle rhythms that it needs. But Grant and McGann are terrific throughout. Although, it's the 'lesser' non-showy role, the performance of McGann is pivotal. He gives the film the sensitive, human centre that the film needs to balance out the flamboyant Withnail, and it's with I that our sympathy lies, and McGann nails it.
But the casting of Withnail needed to be perfect, and thankfully, it is. A quick glance at his resume shows that, frankly, 90% of Grant's films have been crap. And even more frankly, he's been crap in a lot of them. But, in 'Withnail & I' he has an eternal get-out-of-jail-free card. He's quite simply magnetic as the cowardly, narcissistic, hilarious, tragic Withnail. It's an electric performance, that rivets you from the start, as Grant bats out the lines with a perfectly judged comic timing, all the while nailing the inherent pathos of the character. And considering that he's a real life, tee-totaller, you will probably never see a better example of acting drunk as Grant does here frequently.
And the pathos is the point of 'Withnail & I'. Their drunken escapades would be border-line annoying if all it was was being drunk and disorderly. But there's an underlying sadness of lives going to waste, that never beats you over the head, but always lets you know Withnail would be a damn fine actor, if he could only pull himself together. It's this subtle poignancy, and the fine playing of Grant and McGann that elevate it above mere comedy, and makes the ending one of the most poetically beautiful you'll ever see.While 'Withnail & I' should always, first and foremost, be remembered as a damn funny comedy, it's so much more than that. It may not have taken over my life as it has with some people, but it's a grim, seedy, yet lovingly crafted peek into a man hellbent on self-destruction. Think of it as the film equivalent of Oscar Wilde's famous quote: "We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars."
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originally posted: 11/16/05 05:15:03
|OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2004 Toronto Film Festival. For more in the 2004 Toronto Film Festival series, click here.