There is very little to be said about Withnail and I from a film perspective that has not been said before, and I would never suggest for a second that I am in any way a film scholar. I am an enjoyer of film, and nothing more. Though, for me, very few have the lasting power of Withnail.
I was 14 years old when I first watched it. Having much older brothers always meant I had the upper hand when it came to music and movies. Hell, The Cure were my favourite band by the time I was 8. My best friend and I sat down to watch Withnail one Friday night when my parents went out to the weekly pub quiz, and from that moment on it became our Friday night ritual. It moved with us into our circles of friends, which changed fairly regularly, as did the boyfriends within them. Withnail and I left its mark on them all.
But what is it that made Withnail so very popular amongst teenagers and young adults in the UK in the 1990s and ever since? I think it is fair to say that it was the ‘weird’ kids that really got this film, and as I sat down to watch, now aged 39, and probably for the 200th time if not more in the last 25 years, the second I hear the sounds of King Curtis sobbing into his saxophone as he belts out ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’ (in his final ever performance I might add), I am transported back to that place. It is a warm feeling, but also totally heartbreaking. Everyone with whom I ever loved this film is gone or broken. Watching it alone is a melancholic experience indeed.
The film starts with ‘I’ (Paul McGann), who I will call Marwood, despite him never being named within the film itself (it was the name given to him in the script). Marwood is having a drug-induced panic attack, sat alone smoking a joint in a room in Camden in 1969. I didn’t know 1969, but I am told it was so perfectly depicted that people thought the film was actually made then, not as it was in 1987. This film was so far away from the Day-Glo style of the day, so far from plastic pop, from synthetic everything and from Thatchers Conservative Britain. Here, London is dark and sombre. It is raining and it is bleak and gritty. You can visit London now and the fashions and technology may have updated, but underneath that top layer, nothing much has changed in almost 50 years. Greasy spoon cafe’s still exist, with hideous runny fried egg sandwiches, terrible tabloid newspapers with ‘trying to be shocking’ headlines.
Anyone that has ever dabbled in experimental drugs, which I certainly did in my teens, will know exactly how Marwood feels in that cafe on a comedown. Everyone is a monster sent to mess with your mind. You can tell by the way they look at you—they can tell you are on drugs and they disapprove. The world is an utterly terrifying and foreboding place. Those headlines were written just to spin you out. You are going to die because your mind won’t shut off and you’ll never sleep again. Oh, just for a couple of Valium to bring you down to that warm place.
“Thirteen million Londoners have to cope with this, and baked beans and all-bran and rape, and I’m sitting in this bloody shack and I can’t cope with Withnail. I must be out of my mind. I must go home at once and discuss his problems in-depth”.
This is why people, millions of people, relate to Withnail and I. And it is hilarious because in the cold light of day when you are sober, my god it is ludicrous to look back at the things you did. The things you thought. I am not trying to romanticise taking massive drug cocktails, and neither does this film. It is squalid. Withnail and Marwood’s flat you might think was over-the-top grotesque, but it wasn’t. I have seen many a student flat where there was a real threat of teabags growing. I know exactly what that kitchen smelt like—damp, dust, decay, vomit and drains blocked with matter.
We first meet Withnail (Richard E. Grant) back at the flat, distressed because he has run out of wine, and he’s not taking Marwood’s ‘overdose’ i.e. panic attack seriously at all. As Withnail downs that bottle of lighter fluid to top up his inebriation, my first thought was, “Dan would do that”. My old friend Dan has been living in a psychiatric facility for 15 years now, last I heard. Everyone knows or at least knew a Withnail.
Withnail and Marwood were unemployed actors just keeping themselves entertained whilst they waited for their big break to happen, simultaneously avoiding working at all and desperately passing the mundane hours away. Marwood was the quiet, more studious one. The one battling constantly to just stay sober and get himself out of this situation, but Withnail always managed to drag him back in. It is easy then for me to relate to Marwood. It is him writing and narrating this story after all, and it was always me trying not to spend another few days lost in a purple haze and failing.
Marwood and Withnail’s friendship became more like a relationship. Purely platonic, but their time spent together became a marriage of sorts, with both second-guessing their intentions and feeling jealous of anyone else becoming too friendly, giving too much attention. And, like couples often do when they feel they are reaching breaking point, they decide that they need to get away from it all and take a holiday in the countryside to rest and recuperate.
“Even a stopped clock tells the right time twice a day. And for once I’m inclined to believe Withnail is right; we are indeed drifting into the arena of the unwell. Making an enemy of our own future. What we need is harmony. Fresh air. Stuff like that.”
I realise that thus far I have managed to make this film sound very bleak indeed, which couldn’t be further from the truth. I sit here, reading the script, with tears of laughter rolling down my cheeks. The entire film is made up of quote after quote of perfect situational comedy in the most British of styles. Was screenplay writer and director, Bruce Robinson, aware of what he was doing? This is what we Brits do best, of course. Take the darkest of situations and turn them into gold, but I wonder if he knew he was creating what I think is fair to say, the greatest British Cult Film of all-time?
There are no women in this film. Well, there are ‘extras’ but none with any role of significance. Is this a problem? Absolutely not. In fact, to have any female characters would likely mitigate the importance of the men’s influence on each other. Think Monty Python, Morecambe & Wise, Porridge. Dry wit, sarcasm and absurdity rues the day. To have injected a female role would have spoiled the dynamic. Indeed, Marwood plays a feminine role of sorts, and both he and Withnail are subjected to toxic masculinity (before this was defined) throughout.
The already paranoid Marwood experiences homophobic abuse by a beast of an Irishman in the local pub, who’d taken exception to the essence of petunia, used to disguise the smell of Withnail’s post-lighter fluid vomit on his boots. The ’80s was of course the decade that it started to become more acceptable in society to admit that you were gay, but 1969 was a very different story. Old school ‘men’s men’ were not welcoming the sights of the younger generation of males wearing their hair longer, tight-fitting trousers, flowing coats and scarfs. This was a sign of homosexuality for sure.
This is the first scene in which we witness Withnail attempt to talk his way out of trouble or to manipulate the situation to his benefit. And, he has no qualms about throwing his friend under the bus to do so, which does make you wonder why Marwood stuck by him at all?
“Danny’s here. Head hunter to his friends. Head hunter to everybody. He doesn’t have any friends. The only people he converses with are his clients and occasionally the police. The purveyor of rare herbs and prescribed chemicals is back. Will we ever be set free?”
Withnail and Marwood really only have each other. Danny the Dealer (Ralph Brown) is an unwanted but needed presence in their lives. He arrives uninvited and takes root in their flat, bringing with him his new business prototype, a doll stuffed with pills. Anyone who has ever lived this lifestyle knows how true it is that people just turn up and never leave it seems. Though I must admit, it wasn’t usually the drug dealers. No, they seemed to be as hard to get hold of as D.B. Cooper when you needed them. Nevertheless, it is during our introduction to Danny that we become aware of the protectiveness that Marwood has for Withnail. Despite his clear frustration with him, he takes his side in the battle of ‘who can take the most drugs’, and steers him away from trouble and in the direction of Withnail’s Uncle Monty’s house.
Uncle Monty (Richard Griffith) is beloved by fans. Rotund has never been used more appropriately than to describe his physique. Monty is wealthy, lives in a luxurious Chelsea house, drives a Rolls Royce, and is painfully and hilariously melodramatic. His cat drives him to the brink of faux insanity. He takes a shine to Marwood immediately. This is certainly egged on by Withnail once again using his friend as a pawn, this time to get them the keys to his cottage in the Lake District, where they can sit down to enjoy their holiday.
The film changes so much from this point on. Hendrix’s ‘All Along the Watchtower’ kicks in and off they go, in their clapped out old Jag on the motorway to Cumbria. Marwood drives as Withnail gets increasingly drunk and passes out, leaving Marwood to navigate the now dark wilderness in severe gales. I have travelled that path many a time. My eldest brother has lived in Cumbria for the majority of his adult life, so the trip is nostalgic to me. There is something quite stunning and melancholic as you suddenly enter this part of the country, as almost without warning the hills get steeper, the stone of the buildings changes to thick dark grey blocks, sheep appear from nowhere—not quite as many as in my homeland of Wales, but still a sudden onslaught of the buggers. You feel like you are crossing the border into a different time, an air of battle and surviving tough winters still lingers.
It turns out not to be the dream holiday that Marwood and Withnail were hoping for. Monty’s cottage is shabby and run down. There is no fuel for the fire, no electricity. The rain is pouring as it often does in that part of England and you can almost feel the dampness creeping into your bones, stiffening you up. Withnail clearly shares his uncle’s melodramatic traits and declares the trip a dreadful mistake. Marwood, however, snaps straight into survival mode, doing his best to find wood for the fire and keep them alive until morning. Despite their situation, he remains positive and the next morning embraces the countryside he wakes up in, admiring the beauty of the landscape and the romanticism of small village life. The locals don’t admire him quite so much.
“Not the attitude I’d been given to expect from the H.E. Bates novel I’d read. I thought they’d all be out the back drinking cider, discussing butter. Clearly a myth. Evidently, country people are no more receptive to strangers than city dwellers”.
It becomes increasingly clear that Withnail has no intention whatsoever in using the break to sober up or enjoy the fresh air and the outdoors. Instead, he sleeps whilst Marwood does all the work. Marwood becomes increasingly fed up, and after slipping and becoming covered in mud, finally snaps and drags Withnail up and outside to help him find food from the local farmer. Moments of farcical hilarity ensue — the pair have to kill and then cook a live chicken, get into an altercation with a randy bull, and once again Withnail totally throws Marwood to the wolves by antagonising the local poacher and neglecting to tell him that Uncle Monty would be arriving to come and stay with them during the trip. Monty turns up in the middle of the night, finding Marwood and Withnail in bed together. The cowardly Withnail huddled in fear hiding behind Marwood, thinking that Jake the Poacher was coming for them.
For Marwood, Monty becomes something far scarier than Jake ever was. There is no doubting whatsoever that Monty doing his very best to woo Marwood is hilarious, but it’s also totally sinister, and this is all Withnail’s doing. To get the cottage, Withnail stretched the truth somewhat. Made out that Marwood studied at Eton and was a ‘toilet trader’. Worse than that, he made out that Marwood was in love with him, but that he wasn’t interested in Marwood, thus making him ripe for Monty’s picking. Withnail finds Monty’s game of cat and mouse highly amusing, but it does go too far with Monty storming Marwood’s bedroom dressed only in a silk dressing gown and blue eyeshadow. Terrifying indeed.
Luckily for once, Marwood manages to talk himself out of the situation and appeals to Monty’s romantic side, pulling a stunt of which Withnail would be proud. He tells Monty that Withnail is ashamed of his sexuality but the two of them are deeply in love really, and Monty reluctantly agrees to give up pursuing him. I cannot say that Monty is a good man underneath it all, because only seconds earlier he’d threatened Marwood, “I mean to have you, even if it must be burglary”.
So, why does Marwood stick by Withnail after all the terrible situations he has put him in? It has been interesting reflecting personally on their relationship as I have written this article. As I said in the beginning, everyone with whom I loved this film is gone or broken. It is true, and here I am today looking at my recently abandoned marriage, realising my estranged husband is the last person who watched this film religiously with me. It dawns on me now that throughout my life I have picked Withnail. Over and over again. With varying outcomes. My best friend is now dead from an intentional overdose. She had many demons and those demons led her to heroin addiction, which in turn made her a manipulative and dangerous person. She would regularly mess up every romantic relationship I had by sleeping with my boyfriends to prove the point that they didn’t love me. With friends like that who needs enemies, eh? Her trying and failing to do the same with my husband was the final straw and I left her behind. So, of course, I feel extremely guilty now. She still has the power to manipulate me from beyond the grave.
It is ironic then that my chosen husband who unintentionally broke the cycle with the previous Withnail in my life was just another Withnail himself. Withnail’s are needy. Life is never dull with them, always getting themselves in sticky situations, requiring constant attention and nurturing. But boy are they funny, and the experiences shared with them, the hours of talking absolute twaddle, those memories are cherished forever and almost enough to keep you there.
Marwood’s like me thrive on being needed and taking care of these lost souls. We want to fix them, encourage them to be the brilliant person that is hiding in there behind the alcohol abuse, mental abuse and guilt trips. But there comes a point that you realise you are part of the problem. The more you allow them to behave that way, the more you enable them. They will never change. They have no reason to. You are killing them. You are killing yourself too, degrading yourself, losing all your self-respect. You always forgive them for their abuse of your kindness, until the day you don’t. There is always a final straw, a moment of such indignation, like Marwood’s with Monty, that you say enough is enough.
In the final scenes of the film, the pair return to Camden and receive a notice of eviction from their flat. They find Danny and his friend Presuming Ed taking residence there, Ed bathing in their tub much to Marwood’s fury. Danny rolls the now infamous ‘Camberwell Carrot’, a 12 skin joint that really is quite ridiculous. Withnail slips straight back to the ways he was supposed to leave behind at The Lakes, but for Marwood, it is different now. A decision has been made. He cannot live like this anymore.
His decision brings the start of better fortunes, as he calls his agent and learns that he has landed a lead role. Withnail congratulates him, but he is seethingly jealous despite never making an ounce of effort to help himself. The pair say their goodbyes, and there is no doubt at all that this end of a friendship is cripplingly painful. For both of them. Withnail tries his best even right at the end to drag Marwood back in though, inviting him for one last drink, knowing that could full well ruin his chances of making a success of his life. Forever selfish Withnail. Of course, there is still room to pity Withnail. It is impossible not to as he stands in the pouring rain in Regent’s Park, a bottle of red wine in hand, performing ‘What a piece of work is a man!’ from Hamlet to an audience of wolves in the enclosure. At this moment, you realise the sad truth that he is a great actor. If only he could take himself seriously.
We never learn what happens to Withnail. Does Marwood leaving him spell the end of his life? It appears that the only person keeping him from killing himself has left him, but maybe this is his chance. In the end, you are the only one who can save yourself. It is bittersweet indeed to revisit old friends in Withnail and I. It is so important to remember the good times, the moments where you thought you would die laughing. It’s the only way to be free. Life is both a tragedy and a comedy, and no film sums it up better.
“I have of late, wherefore I know not, lost all of my mirth. And indeed, it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame here seems to me a sterile promontory. This most excellent canopy, the air, look you, this brave o’er-hanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire. Why, it appeareth nothing to me but a foul and pestilent congregation of vapors. What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason! How infinite in faculties! How like an angel in apprehension, how like a God! The beauty of the world, paragon of animals! And yet to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me: no, nor women neither. Nor women neither.”