Withnail and I is one of the most quoted films of all time. James Oliver revisits a favourite of his youth with more mature eyes.
It's hardly surprising that Withnail and I is so popular with students, filled as it is with drinking, drugging and squalor of the sort most young scholars will be familiar with.
But while it's not surprising, it is just a little ironic. There's far more to the film than drinking games and, in truth, it can only really be understood by those who have put such things behind them.
For those of you who didn't attend a British higher-education establishment in the last 30 years, Withnail and I is set in London at the fag end of the sixties. Not in Swingin' London, you understand, but a downmarket part of the then-unfashionable Camden where two unemployed actors subsist. They are Withnail (Richard E Grant) and his unnamed housemate played by Paul McGann.
Withnail is a flamboyantly impoverished bohemian and an alcoholic. 'I' is a little more sober, in every respect, but still goes along with his friend's under-considered schemes.
These include an unwise excursion to the countryside and associating with Danny, a drug dealer with a taste for outsized spliffs (the fabled 'Camberwell Carrot') and cosmic conspiracy theories (“...this is the reason bald-headed men are so uptight.”). And so it goes.
"No matter how funny it is, it misrepresents the film to label it a comedy. This is, ultimately, a movie soaked in the most terrible sadness…"
Withnail and I was a film drawn from the experiences of writer-director Bruce Robinson.
Before he was nominated for an Oscar for his script for The Killing Fields or achieved a measure of acting success in The Story of Adele H. (for François Truffaut) and Romeo and Juliet (for Franco Zeffirelli), Robinson had shared digs with a waspish young actor called Vivian MacKerrell. He became the model for Withnail.
Much of the film was drawn from his adventures with MacKerrell at the very fringes of polite society. 'I''s awkward encounter with the amorous Uncle Monty (“I mean to have you, even if it must be burglary!”) however, is drawn from Robinson's own awkward encounter with a then-prominent Italian film director.
Given that it's based on anecdotes polished and perfected over 20 years, it's hardly a surprise that the film is so funny, especially when it's topped off with some of the most quotable dialogue available to humanity.
Image via Withnail and I
Like Hamlet, pretty much every Withnail and I line has entered the vernacular (“I demand to have some booze!”; “A coward you are, Withnail. An expert on bulls you are not!”; “We've gone on holiday by mistake”; “I've only had a few ales” amongst many, many others).
No matter how funny it is, it misrepresents the film to label it a comedy. This is, ultimately, a movie soaked in the most terrible sadness. Withnail himself makes for fine company but we can be in no doubt his lifestyle is not built to last.
The conclusion sees 'I' finally securing a job, in a play that requires him to smarten up and, to Withnail's disgust, cut his hair.
Withnail is incapable of making such compromises, no matter how they might benefit his acting career, and is forever destined flounder through poverty and obscurity. He might recite a soliloquy from Hamlet at the end but we know he will never, in the words of Uncle Monty, “play the Dane.”
"Youngsters enjoy Withnail as a hero or even—God forbid—a role model because the consequences of his lifestyle are so hard to imagine."
Such was the fate of the real Withnail, Vivian MacKerrell. A lifetime of heavy drinking took its toll; he was diagnosed with throat cancer around the time the film was released and he died, aged only 50, in 1995.
Anyone who is interested in seeing him at work are advised to look out for a very good low-budget British spook-fest called Ghost Story (1974), which was the only significant role of his acting career. He is very different to what you might imagine.
Image via Withnail and I
When one is a student, such things seem far away or even impossible. Youngsters can enjoy Withnail as a hero or even—God forbid—a role model because the consequences of his lifestyle are so hard to imagine.
Age and experience make those things more vivid. Watching Withnail and I through more mature eyes conjures a different experience (not least because you are unlikely to be so intoxicated). In truth, it is a film about the foolishness of youth and the agonising necessity of putting it behind you.