WITHNAIL & I
(director/writer: Bruce Robinson; cinematographer: Peter Hannan; editor: Alan Strachan; music: David Dundas/Rick Wentworth; cast: Richard E. Grant (Withnail), Paul McGann (I or Marwood), Richard Griffiths (Monty), Ralph Brown (Danny), Michael Elphick (Jake, poacher), Daragh O’Malley (Irishman); Runtime: 107; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Paul M. Heller/George Harrison/Denis O’Brien; The Criterion Collection; 1987-UK)
“A defining rites-of-passage classic film.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
This is the directorial debut of Bruce Robinson (“How to Get Ahead in Advertising”/”Jennifer Eight”), who also wrote this absurdly hilarious black comedy from his own experiences (his roommate was an elegant but wastrel eccentric actor named Vivian MacKerrell, who eventually died from throat cancer due to an overindulgence in drink and smoke). It has become a cult favorite and has stood the test of time to remain just as pertinent today as it was when released, and it keeps gathering new friends from different generations. Though very British in tone, it appeals to a broad international audience. It’s brilliantly scripted and acted, and plays out as no mere nostalgia trip into the 1960s but a well-realized character study of a pair of oddballs and as a defining rites-of-passage classic film. Its rapid-fire repartee is probably the best of its kind that I can recall from any film covering the bohemian lifestyle in the swinging 1960s.
It opens in a pigsty of a flat in North London’s Camden in 1969 that is shared by two aristocratic but seedy looking, degenerate and broke out-of-work actors, the dissipated Withnail (Richard E. Grant), who must always have a drink, and the nervous and bespectacled I or Marwood (Paul McGann), trying to create a John Lennon image. They exist solely on booze, pills and fags. I reads from his journal notes, which serve as a voice-over for the film. The boys are despondent because they ran out of booze and are freezing, and feel a need to get a change of scenery to the country to freshen up. Their best hope is from Withnail’s portly, eccentric and wealthy Uncle Monty (Richard Griffiths), and so they visit the aging homosexual in his Chelsea flat and manage to swing it so that Monty lets them use his rustic Lake District country cottage in Penrith. But not before Monty tells them all we want to know about him, as he declares: “I think the carrot infinitely more fascinating than the geranium. The carrot has mystery. Flowers are essentially tarts. Prostitutes for the bees. There is you’ll agree a certain je ne se quoi oh so very special about a firm young carrot.” To the boys surprise the cottage turns out not be a plush one they imagined, but a rundown one in the boonies without all the modern conveniences (theres no heating, electricity or running water) and, to boot, hostile locals. They are once again no better off than they were in their cold London flat. To make matters worse, the predatory Monty surprises them with a nighttime visit while they are sleeping together, in fear that the threatening local poacher will carry out his threat to harm them. Uncle brings much welcomed provisions, but has a twinkle in his eye for I which frightens the lad so much he wishes to flee back to London. Once back in London, they find that the pompous drug dealer Danny (Ralph Brown), who is prone to saying the dumbest things which he thinks are brilliant, has sneaked into their flat with a giant black man. He tells the boys “England is a country coming down from its trip.” It ends with I realizing he is living the wrong life and change is called for, as he says his goodbyes to Withnail in front of the wolves cage in the London zoo and Withnail, filled with pathos in this bittersweet ending, goes into a Hamlet soliloquy as the wolves pace back and forth.
Supposedly the Uncle Monty character was based on the randy movie director Franco Zeffirelli, whom Robinson met while an actor on the set of Romeo and Juliet in 1968. No longer willing to put up with an actor’s life, Robinson turned to writing and then to directing. He wrote The Killing Fields prior to this film, and never returned to acting.
REVIEWED ON 11/18/2007 GRADE: A https://dennisschwartzreviews.com/