By Callum Willmott
Ever since my first viewing, two moments have always struck me in Bruce Robinson’s Withnail & I; the first of these being the film’s opening. Set to the sounds of A Whiter Shade of Pale (covered here by King Curtis), the camera sluggishly zooms in on a downtrodden Paul McGann. The second, however, takes place at the film’s end. In a moment of realisation, the disillusioned Withnail gloomily recites Hamlet’s ‘what a piece of work is a man’ soliloquy. As the movie finishes, he is seen walking away; the credits rolling as he heads towards an uncertain future.
What connects these two moments is a sense of conclusion. For Withnail, the dream is over. He will never ‘play the dame’ as his Uncle Monty (Richard Griffiths) says. Even the beginning feels like it could be a final shot, the music and camera movement combining to create a sombre mood. It helps then that Withnail & I is, at least in part, a film about endings; the end of a friendship, the end of an ambition and, maybe more importantly, the end of an era (the film is set at the close of the 60’s). Best seen in perhaps the film’s most touching line, the amiable dealer Danny claims, “They’re selling hippie wigs at Woolworth’s, man. The greatest decade in the history of mankind is over!”
It may be surprising that the rest of the plot does not emulate this tone. The film follows the exploits of two unemployed actors, Richard E Grant playing the heavy drinking Withnail alongside the anxiety ridden McGann (his character name is never referred to), and their attempts to escape their London lives by traveling to the countryside. Taking shelter in the cottage of Withnail’s well off Uncle Monty, the holiday soon becomes less recuperative than expected.
If it feels like I am describing a comedy here, it’s because I am. Among Withnail’s memorable qualities, the film’s humour cannot help but shine through. Indeed, looking at the amount of great lines it’s little wonder why the movie’s dialogue has become so memorable: “Warm up?” says a sarcastic Withnail upon entering the cottage, for example, “We may as well sit round this cigarette!”
Of course, the performances also add to this comedic impact and these too are certainly memorable. In taking a character like Withnail, Grant finds the right balance between funny and tragic. McGann too supports this distinctive performance in his turn as the eponymous ‘I’, conveying perfectly a fellow trekker on this mad journey; one who retains only the slightest hold on common sense. Even the smaller roles excel; whether in Griffiths’ performance as the gay uncle, or Ralph Brown’s quirky take on the drug dealing Danny, each one perfectly contributes to the film’s darkly comic atmosphere.
On the whole, I was startled at how much I had forgotten from my previous viewings. But maybe this was itself a blessing. I got to experience the film’s brilliance again; its unique dialogue and its smart humour. I also got to experience its more tragic elements again. And this, in my opinion, is part of the film’s power. It seesaws between the dark and the light. For anyone interested in British cinema (or cinema in general) I would highly recommend a viewing of this cult movie.
The Cornerhouse is currently playing the restored 4k version of Withnail and I on the 22nd of October.