(Handmade Films) “We want the finest wines available to humanity! We want them here, and we want them now!” Bruce Robinson’s Withnail and I is endlessly quotable, filled with monumental flights of reckless energy and characters that run rampant through the world, horrified, desperate, and in love. The film is one of the great joys of cinematic experience — indeed of life in general; and yet, so few people worldwide have actually seen it. Mention Withnail and I to the average American, and their response will probably be, “Whatnail and what?” In Robinson’s home country of England, the film is considered a classic on the level of Easy Rider or Dr. Strangelove — so what keeps it from being celebrated as such in the US?
Well, for one thing, Withnail and I is pretty much the opposite of a grand Hollywood epic or a summer blockbuster. It’s a small, spare drama of words and emotions, and the only special effect is Richard E. Grant — a steadfast teetotaler — doing a stunning job of acting drunk. This isn’t to say that American audiences can’t be every bit as sensitive and discerning as English audiences when they want to be; but it must be admitted that American films have historically tended toward huge spectacle rather than subtle shades.
The irony, then, is that Withnail and I contains more sheer human energy than ten of your average action thrillers. Watching it is like having poetry injected into your veins. When Jack Kerouac said, “The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn, like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars…” he was talking about Withnail (Richard E. Grant) and “I” (Paul McGann), two out-of-work actors blazing through a drug-fueled bender from London to the English countryside at the tail-end of the howling Sixties.
Is there something in Withnail and I that appeals uniquely to English sensibilities? Undoubtedly, yes. Morrissey famously titled his favorite solo album Vauxhall and I in reference to the film; and yet, Americans love Morrissey despite his distinctly English roots, so they should have no problem embracing this story with its similar themes and tones. Ultimately, the only reason for anyone – American or otherwise – to not love Withnail is that they haven't seen it yet.
The best argument for Withnail’s universality is probably its connection to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas — a film which American audiences have adopted as their own despite its director being a ex-pat American living in the UK. During the planning stages of the Fear and Loathing project, Johnny Depp showed Hunter Thompson Withnail and I, and Thompson was so impressed that he picked Robinson as his first choice to direct the film of his book. He recognized a similar deranged momentum and twisted view of reality. The only reason it didn’t happen was that Robinson had sworn off directing after a miserable experience working on Jennifer 8 in the early Nineties. In fact, he wouldn’t direct another film until Depp persuaded him to take on Thompson’s The Rum Diary in 2009.
Fear and Loathing and Withnail share many elements: cover art by Ralph Steadman; mad, inebriated rants; a sense of barely-controlled chaos; and a melancholic lament for everything that the Sixties could have been but weren’t. In the first scene of the film, “I” — called “Marwood” in the screenplay but not in the credits — sits in a cafe, nervously scanning the gallery of everyday faces with frightened, haunted eyes. He's been exploring his inner spaces for too long – “...drifting into the arena of the unwell. Making an enemy of [his] own future” – and leaving the house has become something of a nightmare. Can this really be the world? Can these be the people we're stuck sharing it with?
It's that viewpoint that the rest of the film nails: the tormented artist's doomed yearning for better, more magnificent things in a life that offers mostly disappointment and ennui. Marwood's anxiety is at once laughable and genuine. Our greatest fear always has been and always will be ourselves, and that fact deserves to be mocked everlastingly.
Like all great comedies, Withnail understands that the horror of life is also the joy of life, giving us a boundless supply of things to get outraged over. Withnail and Marwood meet a variety of ridiculous characters in their wild adventures, including Danny the drug dealer – “If I spike you, you'll know you've been spoken to!” – and Uncle Monty – “As a youth, I used to weep in butcher's shops.” Ralph Brown plays Danny with such sedate gusto that Stephen Surjik hired him to play essentially the same character in Wayne's World 2. Richard Griffiths is so loveably creepy as Uncle Monty that he was later cast as another famously unpleasant uncle: Uncle Vernon in Harry Potter.
At its heart, though, Withnail and I is a story about two men in love with each other. It's almost blasphemy to state that explicitly, because the film does such a beautiful job of showing it without saying it. The final scene is heartbreaking in its portrayal of moving on – moving on the way people do without each other, and moving on the way the world does regardless of our dreams and hopes. That scene has the mythic quality of Shakespeare, and not just because Withnail quotes him. It's that level of human truth. We can find someone – a friend, a lover – with whom we can share our frustration and despair, but sooner or later that person is going to want a career, a family, security, the elements of what's called “a life.” Life is what pulls us apart, even though life only exists in the stupid little moments we share with each other. It's hard to imagine a deeper truth than that, and Withnail captures it, etches it forever in a perfect portrait.
Withnail and I is one of the few flawless films in cinema history, because it's entirely itself – uproarious, sad, joyous, and insightful. It tells its tale without artifice, feeling like a document of real lives led by people who are ordinary, gorgeous, and absurd. In a survey of the great humanist works, it deserves to be listed near the very top. In a way, its existence is a fluke – George Harrison's Handmade Films having given Robinson the funding and creative freedom to do whatever he wanted after the enormous success of his screenplay for The Killing Fields. If ever someone questions the prudence of giving writer/directors complete license to follow their vision, show them this film and then dare them to argue.
Volumes could be written on every aspect of Withnail, so let's leave the intellectual debates aside. Just get a bunch of your friends together, pour the drinks stiff, and do your best to memorize the film. It was made for us – “Free to those that can afford it, very expensive to those that can't” – and as we're the ones who can afford it, we should take advantage of our good fortune. Watching Withnail and I is a true experience from every angle. It's like the best drug trip with your dearest friends: you may miss out Monday, but you'll come up smiling Tuesday morning.
For Fans Of: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, The Rum Diary, Naked, Annie Hall
Why We Like It: profound without being pretentious, incredible witty dialogue