Withnail & I: ‘The finest film cult known to humanity’
Almost 30 years after its original release, Hannah Lea discusses Bruce Robinson’s Withnail & I which is being rereleased for 2014.
2 October 2014
G Starring Richard E Grant (Withnail), Paul Mcann (Marwood/ ‘I’) and the late Richard Griffiths (Uncle Monty), Withnail & I follows the lives of two out of work, eccentric, alcoholic actors as they escape to the countryside for the weekend from the cruel realities of London.
I first saw the film a few years back, while studying film, with a friend who reassured me that I was sure to love it for all its black comedy genius. And I did. Whole heartedly, which then lead to me talking about it with anyone else who had seen it, telling anyone who hadn’t to go and watch it, and even writing numerous university essays on the ‘comic value’ and ‘cultural significance’ of the film. Yes, I am a fan.
It may be the truest of all so-called cult movies, because it captures the imaginations of each new audience with such force, Withnail's eloquent temper and haughtiness, with Marwood's timidity and homophobic panic and Uncle Monty's suave and flamboyant forwardness. So much so, that if someone was to say "we want the finest wines available to humanity" or "we are not drunks! We are multimillionaires!" it would be hard not to provoke a knowing laugh from the initiated.
So as I mentioned, I saw the film for the first time as a student, like many others before and after me. Probably because Withnail & I manages to encapsulate the essence of student life, borderline habitable flats, the ups and downs of friendships, the binges, the never-ending cold, bouts of anxiety and the ‘what if I don’t get a job?’ questions of life.
Withnail & I has been described as Britain’s answer to The Big Lebowski - two males, bonding, effectively removed from the respectable world and any form of responsibility. But deeper than that, it addresses the inevitability of adulthood catching up with you. Something that can scare the best of us, along with Withnail…
Set in 1969, at the end of an era, Withnail is an extremely poignant character, symbolising uncertainty of changing cultural perspectives. Once seen as an eccentric yet troubled duo, Withnail & Marwood part ways, lifestyles and friendships. This is beautifully, yet heartbreakingly demonstrated as Marwood leaves with his new acting job, smartly dressed and with a clean cut new hairstyle. Times were changing and these are encapsulated all in Withnail’s dilemmas at the end of the film. What will he do now Marwood has left? Will he cope?
Withnail & I certainly seems to get better with age, aided by the enduring loyalty of its devoted admirers. With what started as acclaim for being one of the best cult films, to one of the best British films, Withnail & I has grown to potentially, one of the best, most heartfelt, comedies ever made. At times riotously funny, and at others delicately understated and loaded with poignancy, this is a film to cherish again and again.
Withnail & I will be screened at FACT in a newly restored version on Friday 3 October. Tickets are available at the Box Office, by phone on 0871 902 5737 and online.