In my readings I have found that Withnail and I is the subject of a conceivably impossible drinking game. The point of the game is to watch the film and try to go drink-for-drink with the title character, Withnail. Though movie related drinking is always fun, I fully suggest that nobody play along with Withnail. For him, drinking does not seem much like a game – but rather a profession. The drink intake looks something like this: nine glasses of red wine, six glasses of sherry, one pint of cider, one pint of beer, two shots of gin, thirteen whiskeys and a shot of lighter fluid. Sound like a game worth playing? Sounds more like death…
Drugs and alcohol could have very well been billed as the stars of this dark British comedy. They are seen in almost every scene. The film takes place in London in the 1960s and follows two out of work actors as they struggle with sobriety, coherency and bill payment. Withnail and “I” are roommates who decide to take a break from the city and borrow a remote cabin from Withnail’s flamboyantly gay Uncle Monty. Though the intentions were to relax and free their minds, the vacation turns out to be a horrible experience filled with pouring rain and little more than rabbit food. Everything is made more complicated when Uncle Monty arrives in the middle of the night and decides to stay with them. He, naturally, takes a liking to “I” and hilarity ensues.
The story takes a backseat in importance to the mythos of the leading title character. Withnail is played by the creepy looking Richard Grant with so much dark enthusiasm that it allows his presence to steal almost every scene. He is a pompous, arrogant drunk who refuses to do understudy work yet demands the finest wines at any establishment. His obsession with finding the next buzz or high could make him a non-compelling cliché, but his deep sense of entitlement brings the audience in a bit more than that. Withnail has a sense that everyone in the world is against him. He uses the f-word an unruly amount of times, and never relaxes from any sort of stimulant. Grant handles it all perfectly- never breaking character or admitting to the ridiculousness. He just is….Withnail. And as a character, he is unforgettable.
A lot of his intrigue has to do with his unadulterated rage toward most things in life. Everyone knows that person – the pompous for no reason blowhard who turns into the Incredible Hulk when he/she’s angry-drunk. There are very few glimmers of humanity in the eyes of this type of person. Look at the picture that accompanies this blog post; that is the happiest Withnail (on left) looks in the whole movie. Does that seem like a good sign?
I have read that writer/director Bruce Robinson based the character of Withnail off one of his old London roommates. If this is the case then I feel endlessly sorry for the director. Then again, I suppose that would make him the “I” in the title. In the film, I is played by Paul McGann and has an equal willingness to turn any time into drinking time. Yet he establishes a much more respectable rapport with the audience. He sees things with a bit more calmness and understanding. That is until the well off Uncle Monty demands to have his body sexually. No spoiler intended – but that was by far the funniest scene in the film.
And though humor is probably not what you’ll remember from Withnail and I, Uncle Monty still works as one of the shining characters in the film. Richard Griffiths is a British character actor who noticeably came from a background of acting on stage. His presence in the action is almost as large as his frame. He is an open and forceful homosexual who refuses to believe that I is not interested in him sexually. Every action, line and moment that he has is laugh-worthy. He is used as the antithesis of Withnail.
Not every movie about drugs and alcohol has the ability to make them look as great and awful simultaneously as Withnail and I. The film reminds the audience that the 60s were a time of great highs, but that those highs were not always set amongst San Francisco sunshine and rainbows. The darker side of the brighter side of the 60s is celebrated in this movie. It has quotable lines, memorable characters and an unabashed willingness to push the envelope. Roger Ebert has Withnail and I in his collection of “Great Movies”. I would put it one full rung lower in a hall dedicated to “Pretty Good Movies”.
Withnail and I: B