Withnail and I (1987) – Bruce Robinson (Dir.), Richard E. Grant, Paul McGann, Richard Griffiths, Ralph Brown
Like a good boy who sets out to do wonderful things, I sometimes get sidetracked. When I began this blog all those one and a half years ago, I set out to educate my decomposing brain with some of the finer offerings of Netflix’s vast and abyssal cinematic catalogue. But, like Eve, the serpent of blockbuster idiotic chicanery led me astray and into the infinite stupidity that results from an overdose of Michael Bay (bayism affects millions of Americans every year a Transformers movie is released). Now I’m back! I have decided to dive into my bowl of dusty, two-year-old notecards emblazoned with the titles of mild masterpieces. Yes! Netflix Roulette is back! And unlike Anne Heche’s sexuality, it’s for good this time! (Wow, that joke is so old, it had to replace its hip before getting to the punchline). So, this Friday, after booking out a modest modicum of time to engorge on a randomly selected movie, I attempted the game once more. Unfortunately, I’d had a work event only an hour before. Pro-tip: if you are ever invited to a thing called a “Cocktail Challenge” and you haven’t eaten all day, please do not cook mac and cheese naked. Cheese is sticky. You will regret it.
Well, after riding the drunk train to Inebriation Station, I shoved my grubby paw into the bowl and drew out this little ditty of a cult English classic. It seemed as though the planets had aligned! The gods had spoken! How perfectly appropriate for my return to the game! With enough bloody alcohol coursing through my veins to get a vampire trashed, how apt was it for me to draw out a movie about the youthful generation drinking itself into oblivion? It was a sign from god that the game was afoot. The time was now. The mantle of my magnificence, the charge to bring enlightenment to the masses, the holy mission I’d been afforded was ready to be thrust back into the limelight. I had to, nay, it was essential for me to watch this movie. Right then. Right there. And so, sticky with mac and cheese, a glass of wine in hand, I sat down for this movie. I was on a mission from the universe.
And then I passed out.
I wasn’t deterred, however. The next night, armed with a bottle of wine and an inflated sense of grandiosity, I bounded forth into the wilds of the Lake District with the titular Withnail and I. This is a movie that lives in infamy throughout UK college dorms. To the young, it is a celebration of pointlessness, the hilarious revelry of the drunken class, a rallying point for the needlessly defiant soon-to-be-middle-income-households. To the old, it is a cautionary tale of two idiots unworthy of their admission to the citizenry of the human race. Withnail and the enigmatically eponymous ‘I’ (supposedly named Marwood at one point, though it really doesn’t matter) are two young, struggling actors portrayed by, at the time, two young, struggling actors. You might recognize one of them as the bad guy from the last season of Doctor Who (Richard E. “e. cummings” Grant) and one you definitely won’t recognize from that Doctor Who movie they made in the late nineties to try to encourage viewership in the US…nor will you recognize him from Alien 3 because NOBODY is recognizable from that movie, nor will you recognize him from Queen of the Damned because, seriously, who even saw that? (Paul “Smiley” McGann). These boys are drunks of the highest order. No joke…in that it totally is a joke peppered throughout this exercise in agony called a young-man’s unflattering self-portrait. There is a point, early on, where Withnail (pronounced ‘Withnall’ because the Brits truly know how to pronounce things in a sensible fashion such as “the River Temms”, “Edinbrah” and Worcestershire or “Wooster-sherr”) attempts drinking lighter fluid seeing as they’ve run out of wine and money.
At a loss for what they are meant to do with their lives and, more importantly, where they’re going to get their next meal from, they con Withnail’s gay and bizarre Uncle Monty (a massive and hilarious Richard “Mr. Dursley” Griffiths, RIP, sir) into lending them his Lake District cottage for a few weeks. The dynamic duo disappear into the countryside in a car equipped with a single headlight and a single windscreen wiper, to simply wait out the winter. There, they piss off poachers, pretend to be veterans and scream at raging bulls…that is until Uncle Monty joins them in order to woo the angelically framed McGann. It’s both a farce and a tragic journey, both of its heroes utterly ill-equipped for even basic living. One might expect for this to simply become a ridiculous fish-out-of-water tale, two city boys thrust out into the wilderness, unable to chop wood so they burn their furniture and completely ignorant of how to cook a live chicken…but there is something more intelligent humming below the surface. Made in 1987 but set in 1969, Withnail and I enjoys the advantage of hindsight, examining the shift in culture that was occurring at the end of the ‘Summer of Love’. Robinson, probably stealing from his own miserable youth, juxtaposes the insane self-incongruity of London living with the serenity of the countryside. While his two leads, specifically Withnail, spend 90% of the movie hammered, the cinematography constantly reminds us of the hangovers associated with such liquid mirth. Never once is this lifestyle glorified or even condoned but rather, through its bleak natural lighting and infinitely dour, cluttered mis en scene, we are reminded of the downfalls of their carefree existence. Both Withnail and I leap from frame to frame, unconcerned with where their feet will land, be it on terra firma or on the wrong side of a cliff face. However, still they carouse on, ‘I’ being the only one with enough sense to realize their Dionysian existence has an expiration date. Robinson is sure to highlight both actors’ eyes, these four irises of piercing color stolen by over-saturation. Grant’s baby blues are almost inhuman, lolling about in his skull and unable to focus longer than the lifespan of a fruit fly. Even McGann, a face stolen from a heavenly cherub, has his beauty sapped from him with the depression of their existence. There is no secret that these men are simply two wastes of being waiting to die. It’s just a question of when.
Robinson’s journey is one of subversion, but not of the type one might expect. While we live in a period of disdain for non-urbanized populations, Withnail and I is entrenched in a reactionary opposite. London, the major setting for both the beginning and end of the film, seems like a land dreamt up by the surrealistic movement. Withnail and I live in an aging townhouse, still decorated as though it once housed a duke or lady, its decor decomposed to an industrial blackness. Once they return to the countryside, it is their actions that are impossibly bizarre, not these “back-country folk”. Both men waltz about the land like beggar kings, assuming their London-ness and public schooling launches them into a position of god-like import, though they are little more than actual beggars…in that, they are actual beggars. It is only once they return to the urbanity that spawned them that the surreality enfolds the tale like a undulating liquid blanket. The final 30 minutes of the movie are dotted with bizarre breaks in normality, from a randomly screaming police officer and a washing-up liquid bottle filled with child urine, to a joint so massive it looks like a carrot and a humongous laughing black man spinning a globe and clucking. It paints the city for what it is, a nightmare and dream rolled into one, never real for long enough to lay even a tenuous grasp on one of its tendrils slinking away.
Strangely (and by that, I mean not strangely in the slightest) my mind wandered during the film. Repeatedly, I was reminded of Tom Stoppard’s masterpiece play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, a spiritual retelling of Waiting for Godot using two of the most sidelined characters in all of Shakespeare. Stoppard melded the existential wait for God with the literary plights of two completely inconsequential roles in one of the greatest plays of all time, Hamlet. There are multiple direct references to ‘The Dane’ throughout Withnail and I, a sort of apex of high art these three losers all reach for, all unable to grasp a hold due to drunkenness or lack of attempt. Both actors stumble through the film as R&G stumble through Hamlet, the plot and scenery seemingly shifting around them while they attempt to keep their inebriated soles firmly on the ground. They are jesters of existence, two jokes who haven’t found their punchline yet. Even in the film’s climax, when ‘I’ rejects Withnail’s life of debauchery and moves on to, not grander things, but livable things, Withnail is left with an expensive bottle of red outside the Regent Park Zoo belting out a Hamletian soliloquy without an audience to listen. He is a king of a deserted kingdom, an immortal Ozymandias forced to see his universe leveled to rubble. And yet he stumbles on, disappearing into the mist. Robinson seems keenly aware of the follies of youth, unwilling to scream at the drunken louts to get their act together, but rather content with lifting the mirror just enough so that we can see the dull gleaming of a life of wastrels awaiting us in the absence of emotional growth. Seeing as there is a well-known drinking game where the contestants have to drink everything the two protagonists drink throughout the film, the message has not been heard in the University-attending public. Also, drinking everything they do will kill you. Literally.
In the end, we all have our Player Kings invading our lives and leading the way, telling us there is one path down which we must run/skip/stagger. Here it is the conspiracy-theorist, mop-haired, black-eyed drug dealer Danny. For R&G it was Richard Dreyfuss (which is terrifying in its own right). I suppose we all have a choice. We can put down the bottle, get a haircut and sprint towards possible failure, hope driving the engine that might break down at any minute; or we could belt high art to two wolves in a zoo staring on in ignorance before hobbling back into the past, bottle in hand, returning to that beast of Player King so he can keep playing us like the fiddles we are.
I don’t want to be that second one. Thank the Jesus I’m not single anymore.