Withnail and I (1987)
July 20, 2019 10:50 PM - Subscribe

"We are indeed drifting into the arena of the unwell, making an enemy of our own future." Nearing the end of the 1960s, two young Londoners who are approaching their 30s (Richard E. Grant and Paul McGann), both of them struggling actors and accomplished substance-abusers, want to get away from the city and their squalid Camden Town flat for the week. They want to be rid of the cold and the damp. They want to get an audition. Most of all, they want the finest wines available to humanity.

1987 original theatrical trailer
2014 restoration release trailer

Director/Screenwriter Bruce Robinson based his screenplay on the unpublished semi-autobiographical novel he'd written in 1969. Initially he was skeptical of his own work, as it had an unorthodox structure, little in the way of plot, brooding voiceovers, and dismal circumstances.

The Script Lab - The Story Behind the Screenplay: Withnail and I
...Bruce Robinson’s autobiographical and magisterial film about the lives of two struggling actors in late Sixties London, has completed the rare cinematic journey from cult movie to acknowledged masterpiece... Now, more than thirty years after it first appeared, it is routinely regarded as being among the finest British movies ever made (right up there with the likes of The Third Man and David Lean’s classics) and its memorable, indeed infinitely quotable, screenplay is justifiably seen as one of the finest ever written.

2018 London Screenwriters Festival - Withnail and I Script to Screen with Bruce Robinson

BFI - In Search of the Withnail & I Locations 30 Years On
...it’s also a key film about the clash between city and country. The urban is represented by the crumbling north London in which we are first introduced to the pair, but the scene later moves to the vast, unnerving landscapes of the Lake District, where they take an impromptu holiday to escape “the fear".

New Statesman - Withnail and I: 30 Years On, It’s the Perfect Film for Brexit Britain
The seeping, existentialist sense of melancholy in Withnail and I can be read more broadly as an elegy not only for a Sixties dream, but for the end of empire. “It sticks out like a Smiths record,” McGann said in 2010. “Its provenance is from a different era.” It’s there in the wistful soundtrack and the dusty clutter of the characters’ existence – in the cracked glaze of the tea service, in Withnail’s Savile Row suit and flapping brogues (from Jermyn Street, one would guess), the old Jag, and Marwood’s reading of R C Sherriff’s Journey’s End. And it’s there in the elegiac tone of older characters such as Raymond the retired army major-turned-publican, seeing out his final years sharing war stories in a self-pickling haze, and in Uncle Monty’s Noël Coward-type soliloquies. Monty pines for bygone days of hot buttered crumpets and sexual trysts in punts that appear to have drifted straight out of Brideshead Revisited. Withnail and I’s portrait of Britain ...comes across as astute and prescient as the future of the Union hangs in doubt. And, like Withnail, we are largely powerless. Perhaps Uncle Monty says it best when he eulogises a land “shat on by Tories, shovelled up by Labour”. How right you are, dear boy. How right you are.

Roger Ebert - (The Great Movies)
The performance by Richard E. Grant is a tour de force. ...it is his destiny to be forever linked with this early role... In Withnail, he creates one of the iconic figures in modern films. Most of us may have known someone like Withnail. It is likely that Withnail never knew someone like us. His mind was elsewhere.

Kevin Jackson (The Independent) - Withnail and I: Britain's best film?
It is an outstandingly touching yet witheringly unsentimental drama of male friendship (friendship in all its full horror, one might say), a bleak up-ending of the English pastoral dream, a piece of ferocious verbal inventiveness in which unabashedly recondite literary allusions sparkle in the knockabout farce like emeralds in the mud... To pronounce oneself immune to the charms of Withnail and I is to declare oneself a philistine, a Puritan and a snob.

Bonus Links:
Withnail & O
Withnail & Y
the Withnail and I drinking game
posted by theory (8 comments total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
one of the Boston area geeks who drink meetups had movie uncles as one of the questions. it took a bit of thought to decide which one the photo of Richard Griffiths was supposed to be. we correctly chose vernon.
posted by brujita at 1:44 PM on July 21, 2019 [1 favorite]

I like Kevin Jackson's review linked above. My suspicion is that he is right in calling out the film's eternal appeal to students - who will recognise the domestic squalor, the love of getting drunk and the joyfully smart lines. Most students will have met somebody like Withnail and perhaps looked up to those who tell similar tales of debauchery.

Older viewers may see the film in a bleaker light. We might notice that the characters are actually beyond normal student age yet still living the lives of adolescents. We may see their situation as being pretty hopeless despite the great lines. We may recall that we also knew characters like Withnail - but they they are now dead.
posted by rongorongo at 1:59 AM on July 22, 2019 [10 favorites]

I'm not from London but I think of Withnail's pathetic insistence - "We're not from London, you know!" - whenever I'm someplace rural where I would prefer to fit in but it's clear to everyone that I am, indeed, "from London".
posted by trotzdem_kunst at 2:31 AM on July 22, 2019 [1 favorite]

Older viewers may see the film in a bleaker light. We might notice that the characters are actually beyond normal student age yet still living the lives of adolescents. We may see their situation as being pretty hopeless despite the great lines. We may recall that we also knew characters like Withnail - but they they are now dead.

They're actors in their 20s. That can lead to this kind of prolonging of the footloose-and-scruffy phase in one's lives, and contribute to the debauchery and poverty.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:38 AM on July 22, 2019 [2 favorites]

For a long time, meeting a new person who had actually seen this film automatically meant a bit of a bond-- if they could quote from it, all the better.
I agree with rather be jorting re: the gay panic . "OUMSKOW!" is my favorite whats-this-on-my-shoe epithet.
And rongorongo, also well put; I have too many dead Withnails in my life.
posted by twentyfeetof tacos at 9:45 AM on July 22, 2019 [1 favorite]

I don't know if anyone's interested, but Uncle Monty was based on Franco Zefirelli (Robinson played Benvolio in Zefirelli's Romeo and Juliet at around the time the film's set - indeed it may have been the real-life equivalent of the play in Manchester that Marwood leaves London for). Robinson's said that the film was basically autobiographical.
posted by Grangousier at 1:23 PM on July 24, 2019 [2 favorites]

The story of Vivian MacKerrell, the inspiration for Withnail.

I'd think less of the gay panic angle, if it didn't ring true. One of the funny things for me is that it does, having been pursued by an older gay man as a similarly youthful young man. Running among a group that has perhaps an unusually large share of gay men, I presume similar to Marwood and the acting craft, the depiction amuses me quite a bit, since I'm not gay myself. And Marwood got it not only as the object of pursuit from Uncle Monty, he got it on the opposite side from an anonymous brute in a pub earlier. In both instances, the joke isn't so much the gay panic, it's the unscrupulous character of Withnail, who in one instance pimps (the unaware) Marwood to get Uncle Monty's favor, and in the other, crumbles into cowardice under threat of violence. And also Marwood's apparent inability to explain that he's not interested (or gay) himself, so much as he's Withnail's partner and thus already spoken for, in order to evade Uncle Monty's advances. It actually reminds me of several British comedies where the joke is how nobody seems capable of breaking decorum even under duress of absurd situations.
posted by 2N2222 at 7:45 PM on July 27, 2019 [2 favorites]

The story of Vivian MacKerrell, the inspiration for Withnail.
What is really interesting about. I'd recommend this article about Vivian MacKerrell written after an interview with Bruce Robinson. Withnail - in terms of his delusions of grandeur, bisexuality and debauchery - seems to have been pretty closely based on MacKerrell. The latter's life later life thus serves as a sort of sequel to the film. We learn, for example, that MacKerrel - after contracting throat cancer and having an operation to remove his voice box, immediately drew up a series of prompt cards so that he would still be able to order his drink at the bar.
posted by rongorongo at 11:13 PM on July 27, 2019

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