Withnail & I: Britain's best film?

It might not have seemed likely on its first release 20 years ago, but 'Withnail & I' has stood the test of time and emerged as a classic piece of British cinema. Kevin Jackson examines the making of a masterpiece
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The Independent Culture

Twenty years? For those of mature years who love Withnail & I, the real surprise of that anniversary figure is that it has only been two decades since Bruce Robinson's raffish masterpiece was first released on our screens. Was it really as recently as the early 1980s that we lived in innocence of Withnail's eloquent spleen and hauteur, Marwood's (that is, "I"s) timidity and homophobic panic, Uncle Monty's suave and fruity libidinousness? That we had no idea what a Camberwell Carrot might be? That someone could say "we want the finest wines available to humanity" or "get in the back of the van" without provoking a knowing, complicitous laugh from the initiated? Surely we have known all these things as long as we've known, say, Falstaff or Oliver Twist or Daffy Duck?

Adore it or deride it - and there are, to be sure, still plenty of people who simply don't see the point, and think that the movie is no more than a tiresome confection of drug jokes and poor slapstick - Withnail & I obviously casts a very unusual spell over its devotees. It is perhaps the truest of all so-called cult movies, not only because it seizes the imaginations of the faithful with unparalleled force, but because its status is almost wholly the product of enduring audience loyalty, not of clever marketing strategies. On its first release, when it was reviewed with intelligent sympathy (The Independent and The Financial Times were the only dissenters), no one could reasonably have predicted that it would mature quite so triumphantly. In the 21st century, though, Withnail has already begun to migrate from the lists of "Top Cult Films" to those of "Best British Films". Tomorrow, the world?

It is a curious fate for a movie which, to the disenchanted eye, looks about as action-packed and fun as a wet Saturday afternoon at Samuel Beckett's gaff. The nararative runs something like this. Act One: our two heroes, unemployed and possibly unemployable actors, while away their empty days and nights in a once-grand Camden flat with such intoxicants as they can afford. Menaced by drunken thugs and a drugged-up dealer called Danny, they decide to borrow a country cottage from Withnail's rich, eccentric, gay uncle Monty.

Act Two: they head for the Lake Distict, replacing urban squalor with rural squalor, and are now menaced by a bull and a belligerent, possibly murderous poacher. Monty arrives unexpectedly, tries and fails to seduce Marwood.

Act Three: they come back to London. Withnail is arrested for drunk driving. Marwood lands a good job. They part, their friendship obviously over. The End.

Try pitching that one to Dreamworks and see how far you get. (In fact, as Bruce Robinson pointed out, the structure is that of the classic three-acter as outlined by Ring Lardner. Act One: Send a man up a tree. Act Two: Throw rocks at him. Act Three: Bring him down.) It is evidently not pulse-pounding excitment which has earned Withnail its place in the cinematic pantheon, so what are the sources of its appeal?

Let's start with the booze. It was James Brown, the editor of Loaded magazine, who first put on public record the fact that Withnail had encouraged all manner of riotous behaviour among "lads", and above all the famous drinking game in which participants have to line up a prodigious row of tipples, run the video or DVD and match Withnail's on-screen guzzling drink for drink - including, for the real hard core, his swig of lighter fluid. (Has anyone ever lashed out on a bottle of Margaux '53 to join Withnail in his valedictory swigs? Letters, please.) The sheer, liver-blitzing quantities of Withnail's alcohol consumption - "I demand to have some booze!" - and the film's uncensorious attitude to piss-artistry automatically win the film affection among the drinking classes. Especially younger members of the drinking classes.

Which leads to a slightly more sober point. Withnail & I is the ne plus ultra of student films, both in that students adore it (you can bet your last farthing that this very weekend, British undergraduates who were either unborn or gurgling at their mother's teat when it opened in the West End will be roaring along to it for the first time) and that it is by far the best representation of student life in British cinema; maybe in world cinema.

True, neither of our heroes is a student any more - indeed, they are both rapidly approaching 30. But the authetic texture of student life at its most horrible - the manky digs, the uncertain friendships, the wilful neglect of hygiene and health, the binges, the cold and damp, the free-floating anxiety and directionlessness - none of these has ever been caught with such dismaying yet hilarious precision. The cinema bulges with movies about college japes - especially American college japes - but it took a low-budget English film about washed-up actors to capture for good and all the dark side of that protracted adolescence which is the ambiguous privilege of young people in rich countries.

To dwell unduly on the aspects of the film which most appeal to the lager and varsity gangs, though, is to slight its many other virtues. When I wrote an essay on Withnail for the BFI Modern Classics series a few years ago, I took the opportunity to experiment, and show the film to as many different types of audience as possible. Again, not everyone was seduced - particularly American viewers, who often found the accents impenetrable. (One charming couple from Massachussetts, in their early 50s, strained their ears throughout: they pronounced it a very moving tragedy, and had barely noticed any comic effects.)

Most succumbed willingly: the teenage kid with Asperger's Syndrome, who played air guitar to the Jimi Hendrix songs on the soundtrack, and summed up the film as "good"; the retired Oxford Kantian who carefully explained to me that Margaux '53, though indeed very fine, was not, as Withnail contends, the finest of the century; the dying homme de lettres who considered it all perfectly delightful, and asked wistfully if there were any other films in the same vein?

Alas, no. But my little sampling, unscientific as it was, did confirm what I had long suspected: that the raucous, booze-along Saturday night favourite of the Loaded crowd was also quite suitable for reflective Sunday viewing, too. The New England couple who read the film as profoundly sad were not altogether wide of the mark: strip it of its wonderful linguistic richness and you have a film about, inter alia, the threat and reality of failure; lovelessness (there are no romantic possiblities for our boys, and poor Uncle Monty's lust remains unslaked); not-so-genteel poverty; the loss of idealism and youthful hope; the decay of friendship. In an early draft of the screenplay, Robinson had Withnail commit suicide with a shotgun, then rightly had second thoughts: when Withnail bows to the wolves and walks away, we know all too well that he is walking away from life.

Nor is the melancholy reserved for the film's final scenes: it suffuses the whole thing. Robinson said that he knew he had the emotional key to his story when he heard King Curtis playing his lyrical, jazzy interpretation of "A Whiter Shade of Pale". This is the music we hear at the start of the film, as we watch "I" suffering an amphetamine-induced anxiety attack. It was recorded live at the Fillmore West concert hall, and later that evening the musician was stabbed to death in the car park. Curtis didn't know it, but he had been performing an elegy for himself. The elegaic tone persists through all the rough comedy, since this is a film about all manner of endings: the end of the 1960s (as Danny the Dealer laments), the end of youth and promise, and, implicitly, the end of a life. Withnail snorts derisively about Russian dramas after being offered an understudy role in The Seagull - "Always full of women staring out of windows, whining about ducks going to Moscow"; he cannot know, as we do, that he is a Chekhovian anti-hero.

If the comparison of Withnail with Chekhov seems excessive... Well, let it. (It has sometimes been suggested that Chekhov can be a lot funnier in Russian than in English. Much of Withnail's comedy - though it has relatively few traditional jokes - derives from the artful precision of the writing. As Robinson has pointed out, a line such as "We've come on holiday by mistake" has a faint oddity to it which is only apparent to native speakers. One of the earliest test-screenings for the film was for an audience of German students with only a fair grasp of English. It was a disaster.) Whatever else may be said about it, Withnail & I is, line by line, a superbly well-written drama, with each character speaking his own instantly recognisable, utterly memorable idiolect.

Consider Withnail's trademark ranting, hot with injured dignity: "How dare you? How dare you? How dare you call me inhumane?" Marwood's glum prose-poetry: "We are indeed drifting into the arena of the unwell..." Uncle Monty's florid self-pity: "It is the most shattering experience of a young man's life, when one morning he awakes, and quite reasonably says to himself, I will never play the Dane..." Danny's brain-damaged chop-logic: "Why trust one drug and not the other? That's politics, isn't it?" Jake's peasant menace: "If I hear more wordsa you, I'll put one of these here black pods on yer." (The "black pod" in question being an eel.) Or even the policeman who has just one line, which sounds like just one word: "Gettinthebackofthevan!!!"

As all the actors who worked with him on the film attested, Robinson was a stickler for verbal precision. Not only did he frown on improvisation, he had a diamond-hard notion of the rhythms his actors needed to find: "Out of the car. Please. Sir." Each full stop to be noted. In the matter of dramatic punctuation, Robinson's ear is as sharp as Harold Pinter's. Such ferocious adherence to the script might sound like a recipe for cramped, mechanical performances; the reality is anything but pinched. The minor characters - splendidly played by Ralph Brown, the late Michael Elphick, Richard Griffith - are meaty Dickensian caricatures; the two leads, Paul McGann as "I" and Richard E Grant as Withnail - are magnificent close-up portraits.

Is there no point on which the film can be faulted? A few minor ones, perhaps: as a first-time director, who threw himself on the mercy of his crew, Robinson does not always equal his verbal mastery with elaborate visual flourishes. His comic timing, on the other hand, is close to flawless. There seems no reason why a shot of a wrecking ball smashing into the side of a terrace, to the strains of "All Along the Watchtower" should provoke whoops of laughter. It always does, though. The film as a whole is much more thoughtfully directed than even its fans tend to allow. Maybe one of those first-year undergraduates who is new to the whole thing might like to write a paper about the influence of Chaplin's The Gold Rush on Robinson's comic technique?

These are a few of the proposals that can be made to those sceptics who persist in maintaining that the film is a silly, scruffy, negligible scrap of self-indulgence. As I summed up the film in the BFI book: "It is an outstandingly touching yet witheringly unsentimental drama of male friendship (friendship in all its full horror, one might say), a bleak up-ending of the English pastoral dream, a piece of ferocious verbal inventiveness in which unabashedly recondite literary allusions sparkle in the knockabout farce like emeralds in the mud... To pronounce oneself immune to the charms of Withnail & I is to declare oneself a philistine, a Puritan and a snob." Pass the lighter fluid.

* A 20th anniversary three-disc DVD of 'Withnail & I' has just been released