The screenplay for Withnail and I was written in the 1980′s by Bruce Robinson, based on one of his own semi-autobiographical novels written more than a decade earlier. Fortunately, the script made its way to George Harrison, who decided support it with his production company, Handmade Films. The end product went on to become a cult favorite, though its merits as a great film can be debated, perhaps most appropriately over some drinks.
- Director: Bruce Robinson
- Writer: Bruce Robinson
- Cast: Paul McGann, Richard E. Grant, Richard Griffiths
Two aspiring actors in 1969 decide to leave London by briefly escaping to a country cottage. Withnail (Richard E. Grant) is a heavy drinker and lacks motivation. “And I” (Paul McGann), as he is credited in the film, lacks direction almost equally, but comes off as having more composure and introspection and thus provides the film’s voiceover narrative. While spending time in the country, they encounter Withnail’s gay uncle Monty (Richard Griffiths), ultimately triggering the separate paths that each will take.
This is a story about two drug users, with the drug of choice being alcohol. As far as drug addiction goes, convention typically sets these films either down a comical or tragic path. Withnail and I seems to effectively take both paths, as it never really feels like it fits neatly under either classification. Even the lighting and overall tone of the film is bleaker than you might expect. There are several uninspired candlelit interiors. But there are times when it feels fun, like a Cheech and Chong film, and there are times when it feels a bit more serious, with the type of comedy/drama explored by Danny Boyle in Trainspotting. Perhaps the best quality about Withnail and I is that it isn’t predictable, with a plot that is suitably as aimless as its characters. The highest comedic points center around uncle Monty’s misinformed romantic advances and the hilarity of two city boys trying to survive out in the country.
While the acting is effective all around, director Bruce Robinson’s characters instill very mixed reactions. “And I” is never addressed by his name, though there is a telegram where the name “Marwood” is visible. Marwood is the closest thing we have to a character for whom we pull for. Despite his drinking and lazy lifestyle, he’s conscious of stagnant existence in a way that gives him hope. However, Robinson fails to provide him with enough redeeming characteristics that would indicate a desire to clean up his life. Therefore, when Marwood pursues an acting opportunity at the end of the film, it doesn’t feel as meaningful as it feels tragic for Withnail, who ends up feeling abandoned. The tragedy in Withnail’s life sits mostly with the fact that he’s utterly helpless. Not only does he prove himself to be a coward when confrontations arise, he proves himself to be quite unlikeable, which lessens the impact of tragedy. Yes, he can be heard quoting Charles Baudelaire and reciting passages from Hamlet, hinting at signs of intellect. But mostly, his recklessness, coupled with eyes that make him look piercingly intense, make him mostly exhausting to watch.
Brief Words for Mr. Ebert:
Ebert’s review begins by referring to his younger drinking days, thereby establishing his ability to relate to the characters of Withnail and I. Upon reading this first paragraph, I begin to wonder about the extent to which our own drinking histories influence our response to this film. Ebert’s account of Withnail’s character is insightful, referring to him as someone with “unslakable thirst” and bitter resentment. But resentment at whom? We never get to fully understand. I find Richard Grant’s performance exhausting, while Ebert reminds us that Richard E. Grant never, ever, not for a second, breaks character; he is relentlessly wounded and aggressive. Whether this ability to not break character is a good thing or not is a matter of debate. Technically, it is a sign of acting proficiency, but in this case, it is proficient to the point of annoyance. As for Marwood, Ebert cleverly points out the seeds of sanity and prudence that lie within him, thus reflecting a “tenuous grip on reality”. While being a solid film, I disagree that it achieves a kind of transcendence in its gloom. Since the actors are provided with little background so as to motivate their behavior, I found it difficult to completely accept the extent of the shenanigans involved. And to top it all off, I myself am not much of a drinker.
Good, Bad or Great Movie: Good
Do you like Withnail and I? Do you consider this film to be Good, Bad, or does it stand up as Great?
Next week’s review: The Exterminating Angel
Years ago, ScreenCrave contributor Jaime Lopez privately began tackling Roger Ebert’s “Greatest Films” list, an ever-expanding monolith of celluloid currently comprised of approximately 354 films. Lopez has set himself to put these remaining films’ “Greatness” to the test–reviewing both the movies themselves and Ebert’s response. By taking on Bruce Robinson’s Withnail and I this week, he now has 317 under his belt and less than 100 films left to go.