the best of literature, film and music, shown through my rather short-sighted eyes
A first glance, a plot synopsis of Withnail and I makes for pretty disappointing viewing, since it can essentially be summarised in a single sentence: in 1969, two unemployed actors (played by Richard E. Grant and Paul McGann) escape the squalor of their Camden flat for a week in the country. Yet to dismiss Withnail’s wafer-thin plot is to miss the point of Bruce Robinson’s brilliant and very British 1987 black comedy. Intelligent, hilarious and surprisingly moving, Withnail and I achieves that rare comedic balance of offering belly laughs whilst remaining clever and biting at the same time.
Three key areas make the film so appealing for me. Simply put, better dialogue than Robinson’s is rarely heard in cinema. Profane, yet darkly witty, Robinson never goes for easy laughs, avoiding pratfalls and silly sight gags (the chicken scene is a notable, and well-executed exception) and simply relying on killer dialogue that encompasses a vast array of styles from the bonkers (” Hairs are your aerials. they pick up signals from the cosmos and transmit them directly to the brain. This is the reason bald-headed men are uptight) to the snappy (“We want the finest wines available to humanity. And we want them here and we want them now!”) and ultimately the profound as Monty (Richard Griffiths) confronts his hopeless adoration fro Marwood (McGann) with “I must have you, even if it means burglary”. Even Robinson’s directors notes are suitably biting-“Dostoyevsky described hell as a room with a chair in it. This room contains several chairs.” However, brilliant though the dialogue is, Robinson has found the perfect actors to bring it to life and Grant’s alcoholic, cowardly and bitter Withnail is a truly unique comic creation. McGann, as the comparatively straight and anxious Marwood, makes an effective foil as just about the only sane person in the piece. Meanwhile, the ever-reliable Richard Griffiths avoids making the flamboyantly gay Monty a caricature and instead a genuinely sympathetic and even tragic character. Ralph Brown nearly steals the show as the drugged-out hippy Danny.
And finally what makes Withnail and I so memorable is the unrelenting squalor of the locations. Robinson draws a lot of black humour from the fact that his Britain is an absolute shit-hole, at the beginning the characters are afraid to do the washing up because “There’s a tea bag growing!” But there is a peculiar kind of poetry to the country locations that create a sense of nostalgia for lost friendships and a bygone Britain at the end of a decade where the nation is uncertain of itself. Witnail and I remains that rare thing-a comedy of class.