50 years, 50 films: Withnail and I (1987)
As Mrs Thatcher wins her third election, the world gets an utterly timeless comedy of booze and lost futures
First I must apologise. For the second time in our journey through the 1980s I have picked a film that bloody students recite to one another when drinking themselves into old-fashioned stupors. I was, myself, a student when This is Spinal Tap emerged. But I had left the university when — a good two years after it was shot — the mighty Withnail and I crept almost unnoticed into cinemas. So, I didn’t experience it first as any sort of cult. Indeed, I approached the cinema with little enthusiasm. As I mentioned in this place when Richard Griffiths died, Withnail and I really did get stonkingly bad reviews on its initial release. I am still unable to explain this. True, the picture breaks many of the supposed rules of scriptwriting — it doesn’t really have a story, for example — but the dialogue is so consistently brilliant and the performances so sound you’d think the film impossible to resist. I went to see it three times and then waved it bye bye. The years passed, the film drifted onto video and gradually picked up a following. In 1999, the British Film Institute named it the 29th best British film of all time. What are they on about? That’s two places behind the utterly useless Dr Zhivago. Time Out did better when they positioned it at number 15.
Why is it so good? Well, a simple answer would address the unstoppable parade of flawless one-liners. But those jokes are only so funny because they emerge from magnificently crafted characters. Bruce Robinson, who wrote and directed, is a fanatical Dickens enthusiasts and the two grotesques in the piece — the vast theatrical Uncle Monty and and the louche, untrustworthy Withnail — have just the sort of knobbly English characteristics that the great author would have enjoyed describing and Phiz would have savoured sketching. The unnamed I (Marwood in the script) is a blank recorder in the style of David Copperfield. Squinting at the three flawless actors — Griffiths, Richard E Grant and Paul McGann — lurking darkly in Uncle Monty’s cottage we really could be admiring a sketch from a late Dickens novel. For an example of how much the comedy emerges from character consider one inconsequential line from the beginning of the second act. Grant’s Withnail and McGann’s I have arrived at the “horrible little shack” for a weekend away. “What are you doing,” the vertical pronoun inquires as the rain hammers. “Sitting. Down. To. Enjoy. My. Holiday.” Withnail snarls through taut lips. The barely suppressed fury invests a nothing line with enormous, grim comic energy.
The film is also a brilliant deflation of all that sentimental guff about the 1960s (though it’s nostalgic too) and a satire on sentimental notions of rural bliss (though it does offer us some very lovely countryside). Students like it because, to some extent, it offers an endorsement of the classic student lifestyle: booze, joints, unwashed dishes, bad food. But the film, of course, ultimately speaks of the misery of that Bohemian lifestyle. Marwood cuts his hair, pulls on a hat and ventures towards as straight a life as an actor can manage. Withnail is left with the rain and the wolves of Regents Park Zoo. The original script had him blow his brains out. That would have been far too much. But we can safely assume that things don’t end well for the smashed peacock. “What a peace of work is a man.” What a film this still is.
For 1987 we also considered Wings of Desire, Raising Arizona, Au Revoir Les Enfants, The Princess Bride, A Chinese Ghost Story and The Untouchables.