‘They’re selling hippie wigs in Woolworths, man. The greatest decade in the history of mankind is over.’ Danny.
Directory of World Cinema: Britain
Edited by. Emma Bell & Neil Mitchell
As an extract from the Britain edition of Intellect’s Directory of World Cinema the following article looks at the British comedy, Withnail and I (1986). After the film’s rather inconspicuous presence at the box office upon release, it has gone on to become a cult favourite, now taking an essential place in the DVD collection’s of students in campuses across the UK.
Two out-of-work actors, Withnail, an aristocratic, temperamental heavy drinker and drug-user, and the more placidly middle-class Marwood, share a squalid flat in late 1960s’ Camden, London. Withnail rails against the world, covers himself in Deep Heat in attempt to keep warm and resorts to drinking lighter fuel in his desperation for alcohol. After being visited by drug dealer Danny, failing to pay their rent again and being threatened in a local pub, Marwood suggests a holiday and they visit Withnail’s flamboyant Uncle Monty to secure a trip to his cottage near Penrith. They flee London in an alcohol-induced craze, only to find the remote cottage cold and inhospitable and the locals threatening; they are terrified by an intruder in the night, have to kill their own dinner, cause havoc in a Penrith tearoom and Monty tries aggressively to seduce Marwood. On learning that Marwood has an audition, they flee back to London.
Withnail (Richard E Grant) and Marwood/ I (Paul McGann) have become cult comedy figures and much of the film’s humour stems from Withnail’s bilious, misanthropic invective. Bruce Robinson’s screenplay revels in a theatrical use of language, which is heightened by Richard E Grant’s suitably over-scaled performance. Costumed and styled like a shabby Edwardian rake, Withnail’s monstrous sense of entitlement fuels his disgust at his surroundings and disbelief at his inability to find work. The more reactive Marwood acts as both foil and audience identification figure within this shabbily-bohemian world at the end of the decadent 1960s.
Withnail and I presents an almost exclusively masculine environment. The few women glimpsed are grotesques, such as the head-scarfed housewife biting into a fried egg sandwich in a café, or hostile authority figures, as in Miss Blennerhassett (Irene Sutcliffe) in the genteel Penrith tearoom. While the central male relationship has an almost romantic intensity, emphasized by the emotionally-charged farewell sequence, homoerotic anxiety is displaced onto the predatory figure of Uncle Monty (Richard Griffiths). Griffiths’ vivid portrayal of this avaricious, aristocratic eccentric is a triumph of comic excess, but the homophobic nature of the characterization is undeniable, and in line with some other reactionary elements of the film, which castigates anything beyond its narrow setting.
Withnail and I was Bruce Robinson’s directorial debut and, perhaps because of this, includes some awkwardly-staged scenes, such as an encounter with a randy bull. Withnail was financed by Handmade Films – the production company formed to make Monty Python’s Life of Brian (Terry Jones, 1979) and which became a significant force in British cinema during the 1980s. Withnail and I attracted little critical attention on its original release and performed poorly at the box office, but developed a strong cult following on video during the 1990s and is now considered a classic. It is especially popular among student audiences, drawn to the hedonistic, alternative world it celebrates, with Danny (Ralph Brown), the gnomic drug dealer and creator of the infamous Camberwell Carrot, a particular favourite. The florid eloquence of Robinson’s screenplay is eminently quotable; from Monty’s sentimental ‘As a youth I used to weep in butcher’s shops’ to Withnail’s indignant ‘We want the finest wines available to humanity! We want them here and we want them now!’
The film self-consciously marks the morning-after mood of the end of a definitive social era; in Danny’s words, ‘They’re selling hippie wigs in Woolworths, man. The greatest decade in the history of mankind is over.’ As a semi-autobiographical account of Robinson’s own experiences, it is, despite the comedy, imbued with a melancholy nostalgia for an era of freedom, decadence and chaos.