Withnail and I (1987)
Written & Directed by Bruce Robinson
The world is falling down around their heads. That’s the pervasive feeling of this semi-autobiographical film about a pair of friends in London circa 1969. They aren’t wrong; we know this due to the gift of hindsight. The end of the sixties marked a headlong dive into austerity, the setting of the table that is now coming to fruition in the United Kingdom today under Tory rule. England post-WWII had been building a robust welfare state, with institutions like the National Health Service becoming admired throughout the Western world. However, the forces of greed constantly scan the landscape and see every opportunity to rape & pillage, to ensure their survival and luxury at the expense of the working poor. Bruce Robinson understood that the hedonism of the sixties was in many ways a distraction from the coming bleakness, a practice the establishment took people’s eyes off the reforms that began post-War. And so Withnail and I is a mournful, often funny, elegy on a time of such promise that has rotted on the vine.
Withnail (Richard E. Grant) and Marwood (Paul McGann) live in a dingy flat in Camden. They spend their days drowning in drinking while attempting and often failing to secure acting jobs. The only friend they can count on is their drug dealer Danny, who always has something good in stock. Feeling hemmed in by the urban environs, Marwood suggests a holiday to a country house owned by Withnail’s Uncle Monty (Richard Griffiths). After a stop by Monty’s house for a drink, Withnail secures the place, and the pair take off for what they imagine will be a relaxing fete in the English countryside. However, the weather is cold & wet, the cottage lacks basic amenities, and the locals aren’t too happy to have visiting city people. Uncle Monty shows up unexpectedly and begins making sexual advances at Marwood, who is forced to pretend he and Withnail are quarreling lovers. However, Monty is a romantic at heart and refuses to stand in the way of true love. By the end, all the dreams Withnail and Marwood once had have faded, and their friendship ends, Withnail stumbling drunk through Regent’s Park reciting Hamlet’s “What a piece of work is a man!” soliloquy.
The two characters are given distinct but complementary personalities throughout the film. Marwood is riddled with anxieties which the drugs & alcohol don’t seem to dent at all. He’s a hypochondriac misinterpreting every minor pain or ache as the pretense for a greater malady. He wants to live, but the very act of living seems to terrify him. Withnail is self-destructive, as seen in his endless consumption of substances. He gets to the point of drinking lighter fluid when no other alcohol is available and contemplates chugging antifreeze simply to get inebriated. These two men represent yin and yang, life and death. But even life in this context feels corrupted in some manner. They are also lovers, so Marwood’s lie to Uncle Monty is not entirely untrue. Look at the final scene when Marwood, now clean-cut & shaved, says goodbye. This moment is where two lovers are parting, making Withnail’s final lonely speech much more heartbreaking.
Bruce Robinson based his screenplay on an unpublished novel that recontextualized his experiences as a young actor in London. He specifically says it came from his experience playing Benvolio in Franco Zefferelli’s Romeo & Juliet. Zeffirelli apparently made very aggressive sexual advances toward Robinson, so Uncle Monty is partially based on that director. I think this is interesting as in 2023, the stars of that same movie, Olivia Hussey & Leonard Whiting, have come out jointly saying their nude scenes in the picture were included after being told they wouldn’t be. Both actors were underage at the time of the filming. Part of the 1960s counterculture was a youth rebellion against an exploitative parental generation that played on out the very set of that movie.
What is happening to Withnail and Marwood is a subconscious, possibly becoming conscious, notion that the world they have grown up in is ending. The systems in place that allowed people to pursue acting as their entire job is dissolving. The guarantees of certain benefits are going away. The world is becoming ever more predatory. This is why Marwood presents himself as ‘straight’ in the film’s finale. His hair is cut short, he’s wearing preppier clothes, he’s gotten a job and is leaving this world. There’s no indication that this will alleviate his anxiety; he’s doing this because his fear reached a zenith, and he wants to live. Marwood chooses to change himself to survive while Withnail damns the world, refusing to become someone different.
The same existential turmoil Withnail and Marwood feel is reflected in that “What a piece of work is a man” speech. Withnail saying these words in reflecting on his condition, how am I supposed to measure up as a legitimate person in this world? No matter how clever I am or how much care I put into my interactions with others, nothing I do changes the fact that I could die as miserably as any other person. It’s a questioning of the supposed superiority of humans against the rest of the kingdom of animals. We have elevated ourselves but based on what evidence? The world around us doesn’t gel with our perceptions. Withnail uttering this speech informs us what he thinks; he is a worthless person ultimately but no more useless than anyone else on the planet. Therefore, he will continue living in defiance of decency & standards; he will drink to excess and obliterate himself on his terms because that’s all he has in the end. To reference another of Shakespeare’s works, Withnail also understands that all of life’s a stage, so he plans to give a performance to be remembered by no one else but himself in the fading breaths of his life.
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