Two out of work actors (Richard E Grant and Paul McGann) escape their moldy student digs and head off to the Lake District for the weekend. Cue rain, scary locals and an even scarier predatory thespian to spoil their holiday and make Withnail and his flatmate long for unemployment.
The film is just so quotable, from Withnail’s pathetic, soaked-through plea to a farmer, “We’ve gone on holiday by mistake” to again Withnail’s alarmed explanation, “Monty you terrible c**t!” and Withnail once more’s “Fork it!”. Grant’s Withnail may get all the best lines, but “I” (now widely known to be called Marwood in the script) is fixed as the passionate, beating heart of the story by McGann, an underrated low-key performer who proves himself here by not being overshadowed by the manic Withnail (as a pair they make for astounding feature debuts). It’s Marwood’s story, his struggle to re-start his life and move on despite the best (or should that be worst) efforts of his best friend.
The film is a tonal masterpiece. Much of the humour relies on humanity’s tendency towards schadenfreude. We’ve all had terrible holidays like the one that Withnail and Marwood endure (hopefully few city folk have been forced to improvise how to prepare a still-clucking chicken for the oven) and we’ve all had times in our life where nothing is going right. I’m not sure the same goes in the USA and elsewhere, but in Europe and especially the British Isles there is an innate pleasure in seeing people in worse situations than ourselves. This isn’t out of meanness or lack of compassion, it’s more an unconscious thing and goes with our self-deprecating nature. It’s not quite dark enough to be dubbed black comedy, but the jokes go through various shades of brown and grey just like the pair’s holiday.
The ending is tragic but bittersweet, with Marwood shorn of his student locks and catching the next train to his future, Withnail desperate to stop him, or at the very least see him off in style. He ends up walking Marwood, in the pouring rain, swigging wine from the bottle as they go. Withnail is left alone giving a grandstanding monologue to zoo animals, perhaps the finest performance he will ever give to the biggest audience he will ever perform to. We’re pleased that Marwood got his chance and heartbroken for Withnail, who will more than likely continue doing what he is doing, never escaping his eternal rut. He’s one of the most counter-intuitively likeable prigs in film history.
The film stock may be grainy as it always was, the scenery and the clothes drab (ditto) and it may not have made a particularly big splash outside the UK, but Withnail & I still hits hard and gives me so much joy. I remember showing it to the student film club at university and it bringing much mirth to a room full of students taking life as it came (I wonder if we saw parallels?). If you haven’t seen this quietly philosophical, witty and damp romp yet, what are you waiting for? SSP