Withnail & I (1987) is a masterpiece of British dark-comic satire written and directed by actor, novelist, and screenwriter Bruce Robinson, who went on to write and direct How to Get Ahead in Advertising (1989), another strong film in a similar vein. His career seems to have petered out, though, after a couple of flops, Jennifer 8 (1992) and The Rum Diary (2011).
Richard E. Grant made his film debut playing Withnail. (He was also the lead in How to Get Ahead in Advertising.) Paul McGann played Marwood, the “I” in the title. Richard Griffiths played Withnail’s uncle Monty. Ralph Brown played the drug-dealer/stoner Danny. The film also has lovely original music by David Dundas and Rick Wentworth and makes memorable use of a couple of songs by Jimi Hendrix.
Withnail & I was tastefully produced on a modest budget and became a commercial and critical success, routinely included in various critics’ “best of” lists, launching both Robinson’s and Grant’s careers, and influencing many other writers and directors. But don’t let that discourage you: Withnail & I is genuinely good.
Withnail & I takes place in London and the Lake Country of northern England in September of 1969. Withnail and Marwood are two drunken, drug-addicted, unemployed actors living in a filthy and freezing apartment in London’s Camden Town.
The movie opens as they are coming down from a sixty-hour speed trip. Marwood puts a kettle on the stove, then forgets about it, wandering off to a greasy spoon for some breakfast. But he is too paranoid and frazzled to function, so he retreats home, where he bickers with Withnail, then ends up spooning coffee from a bowl as Withnail rants about the cold, his career, and his need for a drink. In desperation, Withnail downs lighter fluid then vomits on Marwood’s shoes. Then they go out to a pub, where they order gin and ciders. This is still morning, mind you. Yes, alcoholism and drug addiction “aren’t funny,” but Withnail and Marwood are totally hilarious.
Marwood really needs a break, a reset. Like many city people, he has a romantic image of the countryside but little experience of it. He persuades Withnail to ask his rich uncle Monty for the key to his cottage in the Lake Country. So Withnail and Marwood go off to Monty’s luxurious house in Chelsea for drinks and dinner.
Monty, brilliantly played by Richard Griffiths, is a hugely fat, middle-aged eccentric. (He decorates with potted vegetables rather than flowers, flowers being “the tarts of the vegetable kingdom.”) Educated at Eton and Oxford, he is an upper middle-class aesthete, gourmand, and homosexual. After an enormous amount of alcohol and a couple of whispered confidences, Withnail extracts the key from Monty.
When Withnail and Marwood arrive at Monty’s cottage, it is not what they expected: no electricity, no running water, no fridge full of food. Withnail is perpetually drunk and helpless, always whining and complaining. But Marwood rises to the occasion. He proves to be down-to-earth, capable, and responsible, securing food and firewood.
As they wander the green hills to lovely pastoral music and encounter a gallery of colorful rural types—a farmer, a poacher, an old drunk—you sense something awakening in Marwood. Withnail, however, remains entirely self-absorbed, wrapped up in his insecurities, ambitions, and the quest for his next drink. “We want the finest wines known to humanity,” he shouts in the Penrith tearoom. “We want them here, and we want them now!”
After a couple days, uncle Monty shows up in his majestic Rolls Royce, heaped with hampers full of gourmet food and wine. Withnail rejoices at the food and especially the wine. But Marwood finds it an extremely uncomfortable experience, for Monty has somehow gotten the idea that Marwood is sexually interested in him. (It is never made clear if Marwood and Withnail are homosexuals or not.)
After an excruciatingly embarrassing attempt at seduction, the truth comes out. Withnail told Monty that Marwood was a closeted homosexual, a “toilet trader” no less. He also apparently led Monty to believe that there was mutual interest. Why? Simply to secure the cottage for a week. It is a cruel, irresponsible trick on both Marwood and Monty. Monty, however, is not a bad man. He has a sense of shame, which is deeply stirred.
Monty is an unmarried man past middle age at a crossroads faced by straight and gay alike: Does he pursue people young enough to be his children, inevitably playing and looking the fool, or does he magnanimously retire from the scene and instead devote himself to fostering the happiness of the next generation? He chooses the latter.
The next morning, Monty is gone, leaving an exquisitely sensitive note of apology. Withnail, being a sociopath, is unmoved by Monty’s plight but delighted that he left his supply of food and drink. Marwood, however, is outraged, both for Monty and for himself.
Marwood insists on rushing back to London. He has been offered a part in a play in Manchester. He ends up with the lead. When they return home, they find their drug dealer, Danny, and a “huge spade” named Presuming Ed squatting in their apartment. The contrast to the countryside could not be more striking. It is a revolting situation.
As Danny rolls a huge joint and passes it around, he discourses hilariously about the historical moment:
If you are holding onto a rising balloon you are presented with a difficult political decision—let go while you’ve still got the chance or hold onto the rope and continue getting higher. That’s politics man. We are at the end of an age. The greatest decade in the history of mankind is nearly over. They’re selling hippy wigs in Woolworth’s. It is ninety-one days to the end of the decade, and as Presuming Ed here has so consistently pointed out, we have failed to paint it black.
When they find an eviction notice, Marwood freaks out while Withnail can’t stop laughing. Clearly this living arrangement has no future.
The next morning, Marwood is packing up his stuff. His hippy shag has been replaced with a short haircut. He looks handsome, well-groomed, healthy, and purposeful. Withnail is his typical shambling wreck of a self. It’s morning, so naturally, he wants to get drunk. Given a choice between a drink and catching his train—a drink or his future—Marwood chooses life.
Withnail walks with him to the station through Regent’s Park in the rain, drinking, until Marwood tells him that he will miss him but not to follow him to the station. This is where their ways must part. Withnail then drunkenly launches into Hamlet’s soliloquy on “What a piece of work is man” to an audience of wolves in the zoo. The end.
Withnail & I comes off as a somewhat random sequence of amusing events. I have left out quite a few of them, so if you haven’t seen it, there will be plenty of surprises. However, the movie hangs together as a story because the events reveal the characters of Withnail and Marwood (as well as Monty), and their characters ultimately determine their destinies.
Both Withnail and Marwood are drunkards, addicts, and actors. But even though you do not see them, you know that they will have very different fates.
Withnail is from the upper-middle class. He drives a beat-up Jaguar. His father is rich like his uncle. Like Monty, he went to Eton. Withnail’s chief character traits are vanity, cowardice, and dishonesty. He lies constantly. He tells a bully in a bar that he has a heart condition and a pregnant wife. He tells Monty that Marwood went to Eton and lies about his sex life. He tells a bartender that he was in the military to get free drinks. He tells the customers of the Penrith tearoom that he is scouting a location for a movie. Withnail doesn’t seem to have any practical skills at all, beyond knowing how mix drinks and choose a tie. He is extremely far gone into addiction, and he probably won’t pull out. But the safety net of his family is good for a few bounces before he ends up in the gutter.
Marwood is from a lower social rung. He went to a grammar school. There is no mention of college. There is no mention of family money or a safety net. Marwood is cowardly and dishonest too, but he also has a sense of shame. Marwood is also much more serious and capable than Withnail. He makes a go of things at the cottage, manages to get the lead in a play, cuts his hair, and heads to Manchester.
Danny’s discourse on the historical moment is also about Withnail and Marwood. Addiction is the balloon. Marwood has let go, but he will survive his fall back to earth. Withnail will keep holding on as the balloon goes up. His long-term prospects are bleak.
The title of the film is significant. Marwood is “I,” not “me.” He is an agent, about to embark on the next chapter of his life, leaving Withnail behind. If Withnail were to tell the story, it would be called Marwood & Me, because as an addict, Withnail is not an agent but someone to whom things happen, someone for whom people like Marwood have to do things. Marwood is an enabler, Withnail the enabled. But it is time for Marwood to enable himself.
Withnail & I is a hilarious film about serious things. It is a coming-of-age film, a parting-of-ways film, with a wonderful script, superb acting, and tasteful music. Richard Grant is utterly hilarious playing a narcissist and drunk. Richard Griffiths is brilliant as uncle Monty, playing him as a buffoon, then a pest, then an exquisitely sensitive and gracious gentleman. Paul McGann is also outstanding as Marwood. He’s flawed but starts showing real character and maturity. You will be rooting for him.
Perhaps the soberest thing about Withnail & I is its treatment of addiction. Yes, Richard E. Grant is a hilarious drunk, but it’s no laughing matter. Perhaps the worst reaction to Withnail & I is that it has spawned a drinking game, in which people try to keep up with Withnail, who in the course of the film downs “91⁄2 glasses of red wine, one-half imperial pint (280 ml) of cider, one shot of lighter fluid (vinegar or overproof rum are common substitutes), 21⁄2 measures of gin, six glasses of sherry, thirteen drams of Scotch whisky, and 1⁄2 pint of ale” according to a DVD featurette “The Withnail & I Drinking Game.” It’s rather like taking up heroin after watching Requiem for a Dream. The only way you can win is not to play.
I don’t know what Bruce Robinson’s politics are, but objectively Withnail & I is a conservative film. (I highly recommend Milennial Woes’ 2017 speech on this subject, which was my introduction to the film.) Withnail & I is not just about growing up, but about growing out of the 1960s, including its culture of expressive individualism and addictive self-indulgence.
Even uncle Monty is a conservative of sort. Like many pre-Stonewall homosexuals of his class, he is educated, cultivated, and sees himself as a repository and guardian of history and culture. He knows Shakespeare, speaks Latin, listens to classical music, cooks well, and keeps an excellent cellar. He acted in his youth but couldn’t make a career of it, so he made a good living doing something else. (It is never clear what Monty actually does, but then a gentleman wouldn’t talk about such things.)
Monty asks Marwood: “Are you a sponge or a stone?” A sponge absorbs new experiences; a stone is closed off to them. Monty is a sponge. He is a refined materialist rueful of England’s decline into vulgar materialism. He’s a fat man, so he’s clearly self-indulgent, but unlike his nephew, he doesn’t seem to be a drunkard. Nor is Monty a sponge in the sense of a parasite on others. He’s self-sufficient, practical, and accomplished: he has an income; he can cook; he can plan excursions, etc. He knows how to live. Withnail is a sponge of a lower order. He’s undiscriminating enough to drink lighter fluid. He’s also a parasite on the money, expertise, pity, and opinions of others.
The first morning at the cottage, Monty launches into a hilarious little speech over breakfast:
The older order changeth, giving way to the new, and God fulfills himself in many ways, and soon, I suppose, I shall be swept away by some vulgar little tumor. My boys, we are at the end of an age. We live in a land of weather forecasts and breakfasts that set in. Shat on by Tories, shoveled up by Labour. Now which of you is going to be a splendid fellow and go down to the Rolls for the rest of the wine?
Monty senses that the age of British high culture is ending with “the sixties.” But Danny laments that the sixties are almost over. Sadly, we still haven’t come down from that trip. Is it too much to hope that the end of Danny’s age will be the return of something like Monty’s? Perhaps that’s Marwood’s future. It’s up to all of us to write the sequel. But to do so, we’ve all got to say goodbye to our Withnails.