Withnail and I (1987)

Dir. Bruce Robinson. Starring Paul McGann, Richard E. Grant, Richard Griffiths

Withnail and I is a spiritual successor to Brideshead Revisited, presumably where Charles and Sebastian would have ended up if Waugh had ditched Sebastian’s Catholic family but maintained the guilt. Like Charles, And-I (whose name, based on the telegram he gets, is “Marwood,” but who I think is better understood as an “And-I”) is wrapped up in the wild alcoholism of someone with more charm and the inertia of a runaway freight train. It seems obvious that without Withnail (Grant), And-I (McGann) would be leading a more or less normal life. In the first scenes of the movie, bent double with his anxiety, greasy and staring blankly around an old woman who misses the point of her sad egg sandwich, he thinks to himself: “I can’t cope with Withnail.” Memorably, his panic attack culminates with the nearly profound statement, “My thumbs have gone weird!” So naturally, he spends the rest of the week – and a strange, memorable weekend – with the man before only a stroke of good fortune manages to separate the two of them. In both Withnail and Brideshead the separation between the talented “I” and the manically compelling boozer is read as sad, yet Withnail recognizes the hopefulness that can spring in the “I.” And-I has a future ahead of him. Withnail, standing in the rain, gesticulating madly with his umbrella, dropping Hamlet’s “What a piece of work is man” monologue with a roaring gusto to be heard above the pounding rain, walks off more or less into oblivion. The Catholic Church’s sprawling tentacles can’t wait to welcome back every person and leave the signature suction marks all over them; there’s something more Protestant about the way And-I seems chosen for salvation despite his dearth of good works, and the way that Withnail will, almost certainly be consigned to the flames.

Poverty and squalor don’t have to go together, but Withnail and And-I certainly seem bound to it. They share a seedy little apartment where the sink is piled high with filthy dishes. And-I manages to find one reasonably clean little bowl and one reasonably clean spoon. “Why don’t I get any soup?” Withnail declaims. (Withnail is one of those people who only speaks in declamations; for all I know he invented the word on a bender. He belongs to the subspecies of film humanity who would enervate a real person in minutes, but as a character in fiction is a penetrating dayspring.) “Coffee,” And-I says, spooning in another sip.

Withnail: Why don’t you use a cup like any other human being?

And-I: Why don’t you wash up occasionally like any other human being?

Withnail: How dare you! How dare you! How dare you call me ‘inhumane!'”

It’s a moderately clever piece of wordplay for someone who hasn’t slept in two and a half days, although he misses the point – he called And-I inhumane first. And-I, perhaps knowing something about discretion and valor, manages to turn Withnail’s fury on a rat he thinks is living in the unfathomable stack of dirty dishes. In the kitchen there are the dishes. In the living room there are things strewn about at random. In the bathroom, a tub sits in the middle of the room, with a mirror perched on the edge of the tub and a toilet to the side. The door appears to have been painted rather badly in child’s colors; some flecks of paint appear to have hit the neighboring wall; Withnail forgets that the toilet is not a trash can. It is alarmingly gray in that apartment, except for the even more alarming yellowy haze in the kitchen. The heat is off, making it, in Withnail’s parlance, “like Greenland in here.” Neither one of them has any work; both are aspiring actors, and though And-I has had an audition in the recent past, Withnail hasn’t. How they even have the money for the apartment is a total mystery, much less the alcohol they burn through. “Chin-chin,” Withnail always says before the first drinks, and it’s the only thing which is consistent about the alcohol consumption. I am probably missing some, but we see/hear the boys drink ale, beer, gin, scotch, sherry, whiskey, and wine. Vodka is noisily missing, though Withnail does say that he ate a raw potato early in the movie; maybe he was hopeful. They order large scotches; they grab quadruple whiskeys (something about Grant’s line reading there reminds me of Johnny Depp’s line reading from Bruce Robinson’s The Rum Diary: “There’s no such thing as 400-proof alcohol!”); Withnail chugs wine and sherry straight from the bottles, cheeks flaring wildly and eyes puffing out of their sockets. At one point he even drinks the lighter fluid, which almost works until he expels it and whatever else was in his system directly onto And-I’s shoes. In short, between the splendid one-liners are constant reminders that both men are desperately unhappy and, frankly, in something of a desperate situation.

Their savior is an eminently unlikely one: Withnail’s ungainly, generous, gay, bizarre, well-off uncle, Monty (Griffiths). Griffiths is going to be remembered to a vast number of people my age as Uncle Vernon in the Harry Potter movies, which is sort of a shame. Aside from his long and noteworthy theater career, he fills the margins of ’80s British film. He’s in two consecutive Best Picture winners, Chariots of Fire and Gandhi, and appears for a total of about three minutes between the two of them. I’ll always love him best for The History Boys, which is, weirdly enough, his other gay predator role. (Twenty years distant in film, both pieces find more to hope on in young gay men rather than old gay men; old gay men are sad, practically useless. What a relief that Ganymede was swept away young, and maybe someday there will be a story about an older gay man who isn’t pathetic.) In Withnail, Uncle Monty sets his sights on And-I almost from the start. Withnail and And-I visit him at his pleasant, magenta home one evening for the purposes of asking him for loan of his cottage in the Lake District; upon hearing that his unfamiliar guest is, like his a nephew, a “thespian,” Monty is enraptured in his past. He used to act too, but it never went anywhere. The funniest part of this entire movie is undoubtedly watching Richard E. Grant, pants hiked up to his thighs, running around in a river with a shotgun and trying to shoot fish; this is made even better because the inanimate object Richard E. Grant looks like most is a shotgun. The funniest line of the movie, however, belongs to Richard Griffiths. Centered in the frame, shot at a distance from below, Monty offers up a lament for the ages: “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.'” He’s not even wrong! Everyone has to recognize at some point that he’ll never play in the World Series or win a Pulitzer or play the Dane – it’s the total lack of irony which Griffiths manages to lay into his uplooking posture, his soaring voice which sells Monty. From now on we know everything we need to know about him, although the extraneous details are filled in with astonishing vigor. It’s certainly the same kind of sadness infecting Withnail and And-I. The latter is sunk as long as he continues cavorting with his treacherous best friend, prone to panic attacks; he’s like a fourteen-year-old trying to take care of an infant with a flamethrower instead of an arm. The former, perpetually soused, a nearly hopeless alcoholic before thirty, is even more miserable. Frequently he expounds on his desire to be a star actor, a position he will propel himself to with his great talent. Yet the only acting gig he even comes close to is to understudy Konstantin in The Sea Gull, and Withnail does not understudy parts. (And most certainly not Russian parts.) The laughter these three men can produce in their viewers is staggering, but it is inlaid every time with a real pity.

The vacation begins inauspiciously. Driving in the pouring rain to the other end of the country in a car with one headlight and one windshield wiper, lost deep into the night, the pain overcomes Withnail, who is crying out for aspirin with the sort of fervency usually reserved for dying soldiers who want their mothers. The first several hours are a shambles. And-I has the devil’s own time trying to find a farmer who can sell them wood, coal, and anything to eat; the thing to eat, incidentally, is a very live chicken who, when he enters the oven, bears a stunning resemblance to the Death of Elvis. They get on the wrong side of a poacher at the pub one evening in a conversation which, led by Withnail, degenerates from “We’d like to buy a pheasant” to “Don’t threaten me with a dead fish!” That evening, the two of them convince themselves that the poacher is trying to break into the cottage (Withnail has brought himself and the shotgun to sleep with And-I), and are stunned to find that it was Monty. Things almost get worse from there, for while Monty provides stability with his supply of food, his good cooking, his excellent wine collection, and his money, he also expects his pseudo-wards to be good company.

The denouement of the piece is brought about by the telegram And-I receives at the cottage, calling him back to London for an audition for a leading role that he gets in the end. It’s a sudden shift in the action, though forgivable because it is so necessary for the plot. (Withnail, bless him, continues to pack in literary recreations during this denouement: he and Mr. Toad are like-minded about motorcars, and one of stupidest sight gags in the history of film follows.) Without the call back to London, it’s not hard to imagine And-I following Withnail into the grave from the cottage rather than the apartment, or having any real impetus to return to London at all. Having a chance at a job seems to pound responsibility into And-I, or maybe it was nearly being a sexual partner for Monty because Withnail told his Uncle that And-I was gay. In either event, the sheer irresponsibility that Withnail exhibits turns into his own show, becomes connected to drug-dealing, mumbling and mellow Danny (Ralph Brown) more than And-I. He doesn’t really fit in anymore. Danny, famously, smokes a blunt the size and shape of a cream horn, monologuing about the ever-nearing end of the 1960s, the “greatest decade in human history.” What we know now – and, indeed, in 1987 – was that people like Danny and Withnail are not likely to make it through the ’70s with the same sort of panache as they blew through the ’60s. Only And-I, who gets a haircut and dresses better and bears Withnail’s company one last time en route to his new life, seems likely to climb over the wall to the next decade. Withnail, perpetually searching for the low door in the wall, seems more likely to bang his head into the bricks than anything else.

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