“I’M GONNA BE A STAR!”
(Withnail & I, Bruce Robinson, UK, 1986, 107 mins)
“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.”
Being a student, it is easy to sympathise with being poor enough and desperate enough to get to that stage of drinking lighter fluid. The familiarity of a kitchen being so terrifyingly dirty that you have to restrain your friend from attempting a clean-up operation is shockingly close to home. However, Withnail and Marwood (“I”) are not penniless students, but failed actors who drown their sorrows in drugs and alcohol.
Released in 1987 and set in 1960s England, this iconic film is still as popular as it ever was. The opening sounds of King Curtis’ last ever performance of A Whiter Shade of Pale – recorded just hours before his death – set to the image of a solitary, paranoid man in a smoky room induces visions of the “rock ‘n’ roll” decade. The soundtrack is limited and there is no consistent film score which allows moments to be reflected on as the audience wishes to; giving the film and even the plot a sense of authenticity. The soundtrack itself includes iconic songs by The Jimi Hendrix Experience, The Beatles and Charlie Kunz; a copy of the album being notoriously hard to find after being discontinued as the Jimi Hendrix songs were not licensed properly. Surely having a limited release soundtrack adds to the stylish and rebellious nature of the film.
Director, Bruce Robinson originally wrote the story as a semi-autobiographical novel but eventually adapted it into a screenplay. Robinson attended London’s Central School of Speech and Drama and began to write screenplays in the mid-70s; mirrored in the character of Marwood’s acting turning into writing. His achievement on writing for Roland Joffé’s The Killing Fields in 1984 allowed him to proceed with his most successful film just three years later. Directing and writing Withnail & I gave Robinson the freedom and opportunity to do what he wanted with the plot and actors.
Robinson cast Richard E. Grant as the inebriated Withnail; despite being new to the scene and teetotal. Grant brings a perfect balance of childlike naivety and pompous eccentricity to the role. After four auditions and (apparently) a weight-loss course, Grant succeeded in securing this, now renowned, protagonist. When watching the film, one can see how much he brings to the character, even just in appearance and facial expressions. His lanky posture contrasts perfectly with the shorter stature of Paul McGann’s Marwood, bringing a balance and visual equality when the two are together on screen. Their obvious differences highlight to the audience that they could never be best friends, so we accept their picky arguments and welcome their brother-like reliance on each other. McGann makes this possible by counteracting the childishness in Grant’s character with a paranoid seriousness. After seeing the film, it is hard to imagine Uncle Monty Withnail as being played by anyone other than Richard Griffiths. He is perfectly cast as an old eccentric with homosexual tendencies towards younger men who we can both fear and pity. Griffiths and Grant play roles with believable family connections; Withnail being the spoilt brat, Uncle Monty the spoiler. McGann plays the bridge between the Withnails and the audience by noticing what is wrong with the family set-up.
The poignant last scenes where Marwood has cut his hair for the acting role he has finally got represents the move away from Withnail and the sacrifices they are making to follow their dreams. Although Marwood’s speech to Monty about them being a couple is a lie, throughout the film we can see Withnail and Marwood’s reliance on each other. As Withnail wanders off into the pouring rain quoting from Hamlet, the viewer is left wondering what is going to happen to him without his companion and whether he will meet the same fate as the Shakespearean tragic hero. This echoes the idea of leaving behind the 60s and moving towards the new decade. Perhaps the stoned dealer Danny describes this perfectly by saying, “London is a country coming down from its trip. We are 91 days from the end of this decade and there’s going to be a lot of refugees.” Withnail & I is a film, not about friendship or “thespians”, but about passing relationships, momentary interactions and moving on. This is a film that can only really be summed up in one word: cool.