Saturday, 30 April 2011

Withnail & I

Year: 1987
Director: Bruce Robinson
Screenplay: Bruce Robinson
Starring: Richard E. Grant, Paul McGann, Richard Griffiths, Ralph Brown, Michael Elphick
Running Time: 108 minutes
Genre: Comedy

Summary: London, 1969: Withnail (Grant) and Marwood (McGann) are a pair of unemployed actors who share a squalid flat. Withnail is a flamboyant alcoholic with a penchant for long, venomous rants where he bemoans his fate, humanity and the world in general while proclaiming himself as an undiscovered genius. Marwood is more level-headed and anxiety prone.
Deciding they need a break, they go off for a holiday in the country in a cottage owned by Withnail's Uncle Monty (Griffiths). However, the holiday does not go to plan, as they are hampered by terrible weather, and a complete lack of food, fuel and common sense. As Withnail manages to antagonise every local person they encounter, including a threatening poacher (Elphick), and Marwood does his best to avoid the sexual advances of Uncle Monty.

Opinions: Note: Paul McGann's character name is never spoken in the movie and in the credits he is just referred to as "I", but he is named Marwood in the screenplay and I have used that name in this review for the sake of convenience.
This scathing dark comedy is one of the greatest British films of the 1980s and remains one of the best cult films Britain ever produced. The film is full of memorable scenes and quotable dialogue. Blending elements of tragedy with the comedy it is at once sad and hilarious. Grant made his name with his portrayal of the vicious Withnail who barely shuts up long enough to down prodigious quantities of alcohol. Incidentally, in real life Grant is a teetotaller and had never been drunk prior to signing on for the film. Robinson felt that he could not play an alcoholic like Withnail unless he knew what it was like to be drunk, and so forced Grant to go on a drinking binge. Grant has said that he found the experience deeply unpleasant. McGann and Griffith are impressive in their roles, but Ralph Brown as permanently stoned drug dealer Danny walks away with every scene he appears in.
The film is largely autobiographical with Marwood being based on Robinson and Withnail being based on actor Vivian MacKerrell, with whom Robinson shared a house in the 1960s. The scene where Withnail drinks lighter fluid was taken from an incident where MacKerrell drank lighter fluid and, according to Robinson, was unable to see again for several days. In the film, unbeknownst to Grant, Robinson subsituted the water, that was originally going to be drank in the lighter fluid scene with vinegar. The subsequent vomiting was scripted, but the look of complete shock and disgust on Grant's face was entirely genuine.
There is a real sense in the movie of the end of an era. The wild carnival of the swinging sixites giving way to the long hangover of the seventies.

"We want the finest wines available to humanity. We want them here, and we want them now!"
-Withnail (Richard E. Grant) places his order in a quiet country tea shop in Withanil & I

Marwood (Paul McGann) and Withnail (Richard E. Grant) pause for reflection in Withnail & I

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