|Paul McGann (left) as "I." Richard E. Grant as "Withnail."|
Bruce Robinson (writer-director), Withnail & I
One fog-shrouded afternoon in autumn 1969, two unemployable losers decide they’ve earned a vacation. A more mismatched pair you cannot imagine: a cynical burnout who directs his self-hatred outward, and a meek but promising youngster, terrified of earning his best friend’s contempt. Their story, a lightly fictionalized memoir, provides a hilarious window into a dun-tinged era when a starving artist could still survive in London.
Writer-director Bruce Robinson based this melancholy comedy, his debut in the big chair, on his experiences trying to break into acting in the late 1960s. He played Benvolio in Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet, and claims the director ham-handedly tried to seduce him—an occurrence which this movie exaggerates to heights of cringe-inducing slapstick. In 1969, he shared a walk-up flat with Vivian MacKerrell, an actor primarily famous for drinking himself to death.
Richard E. Grant plays “Withnail,” a self-destructive tornado of malice who schedules his entire life around ways to maintain his alcohol flow. He lives in squalor, abuses his agent, drinks entire days into blackout oblivion, yet cannot understand why he cannot secure work. He reserves special disdain for his flatmate, “I,” played by Paul McGann. (Fan theories contend McGann’s character is actually named “Marwood,” only tangentially evidenced by the dialog.)
McGann’s character retains Swinging London’s fading optimism following the Hippie Era’s slow death. He still attends auditions, believing opportunities await the diligent. But he mistakes Withnail’s sodden monologues for philosophy, which he internalizes. “We are indeed drifting into the arena of the unwell,” he soliloquizes, “making an enemy of our own future.” Thus he arrives at the idea of taking a long-overdue holiday.
|Richard Griffiths as Uncle Monty|
Nevertheless, they get the cabin, for which they prove supremely underprepared. Without electricity or running water, they’re virtually isolated. They arrive during the rainy season, without food or clean clothes, their booze cache already severely depleted. Holiday-making proves even more work than actually working. All this before that fateful midnight when, without warning, Uncle Monty arrives unannounced. He has his own ambitions which, in 1969 Britain, are still technically illegal.
Robinson creates an expressive visual palette. His London is visually rich, from the ancient stone buildings to the sleek, modern Bakelite tables of the local diner. But the boys, in their substance-addled lifestyle, reduce their environment to undifferentiated grey. Withnail sits on a brightly lit bench in verdant Hyde Park, so wrapped in his misery that he can only notice his own colorless, vodka-soaked phlegm.
They likewise miss the wonder of the Cotswolds. From green grass to orange peat fires, dry-stone walls to rolling hills, the countryside offers constant visual wonders our lads miss, because they walk with their heads down, hands in their pockets. They wear grey flannel coats topped with their lank hair, a pair of shuffling sad sacks already moving through this life like ghosts immune to life, vitality, or humanist joy.
These characters’ bleak despair finds manifestation in their namelessness. By contrast, Uncle Monty has a first name, as does Danny, their sardonically hilarious dealer. Monty represents Britain’s past glamour, while Danny revels in transition, loving how London is shedding its staid, Christian, imperialist past. They stand at opposite poles, yet both are wholly alive, as our boys, in their present-centered despondency, aren’t. Past or future, they both live in hope.
Funding for this film came partly from Handmade Films, George Harrison’s hobby company that also bankrolled Monty Python’s classic Life of Brian. Harrison’s involvement greases a rich soundtrack that not every period film can afford. Hendrix, King Curtis, and the Beatles give this film a richly realized soundtrack that immerses audiences in the period. With Harrison’s help, this movie moves beyond mere period curiosity, into a glimpse of another era.
Released in 1987, this movie expresses nostalgia for pre-Thatcher innocence, probably fictional, that characterized the late Eighties. But viewing it today, it offers another layer: a periscope into a time when artists could afford to starve. Like Manhattan or Frisco, London has moved beyond young strivers’ ambitions. But in this story, “I” suffers indignities until he overcomes. Because in the Sixties, ambitious contenders could still win.