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Withnail and I (1986)

Courtesy of Handmade plc

Main image of Withnail and I (1986)
35mm, 107 min, colour
DirectorBruce Robinson
Production CompanyHandmade Films
Executive ProducerGeorge Harrison
 Denis O'Brien
ProducerPaul Heller
ScreenplayBruce Robinson
PhotographyPeter Hannan
EditorAlan Strachan

Cast: Paul McGann (Marwood/'... & I'); Richard E. Grant (Withnail); Richard Griffiths (Monty); Ralph Brown (Danny); Michael Elphick (Jake)

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Two out of work actors in the late 1960s decide to take a break from their stale, drug-fuelled lives and their decrepit London flat. But their trip to a country cottage goes disastrously wrong.

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Although it is now a strong contender for the title of most adored British film of the 1980s, Withnail & I (1986) went almost unnoticed on release. Poor distribution and unsympathetic financiers prevented it from reaching the audience it deserved, despite a riotously funny script and confident direction from first-timer Bruce Robinson, and outstanding performances from Richard E. Grant and Paul McGann as the two hapless actors who go on holiday "by mistake".

Based on Robinson's own experiences as an occasionally employed actor in a squalid London flatshare in the late 1960s, the film has a powerful sense of place and time, despite occasional errors - like the sign for the M25 (which opened in the 1980s) visible in one scene. Robinson makes impressive use of his '60s soundtrack, from the melancholic saxophone of King Curtis's cover of 'A Whiter Shade of Pale' that opens the film to Jimi Hendrix's brooding 'All Along the Watchtower' and 'Voodoo Chile'. But in place of the lavish colours and exuberance usually associated with 'swinging London', Withnail offers a drab, decaying landscape painted in muted browns and greys.

This refreshing lack of glamour, alongside vivid characters and unforgettable dialogue, means the film still seems fresh and alive after several viewings (some fans have seen it dozens of times). But it does have its problems, chiefly an uncomfortable homophobia - epitomised by Richard Griffiths' admittedly hilarious characterisation of the predatory but ultimately pathetic old queen Uncle Monty.

Underneath the humour is a deep well of sadness. Withnail is pompous, self-destructive, irresponsible and, above all, selfish. But what makes him sympathetic is not just that he is so hysterically funny, but that he is, essentially, a child. While 'I' (called Marwood in Robinson's original novel) is able to leave behind their fetid apartment, the vampiric dealer Danny and the whole crumbling decade for the prospect of a brighter future, Withnail is trapped, abandoned and alone.

In his final, forlorn soliloquy, Withnail recites Hamlet's lament ("I have of late, wherefore I know not, lost all of my mirth...") to a pitiful audience of wolves in Regent's Park. In lesser hands, the scene would appear clumsy or pretentious, but Robinson and Grant (who has never had a better role) manage to convince us that Withnail is a tragic hero of Shakespearean proportions. Withnail, perhaps, finally realises that, like his similarly wretched Uncle Monty, he "will never play the Dane".

Mark Duguid

*This film is the subject of a BFI Modern Classics book by Kevin Jackson.

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Video Clips
1. 'Fork it!' (1:56)
2. Visiting Uncle Monty (2:16)
3. 'Of course he's the farmer' (1:19)
4. 'Shouldn't it be more bald?' (1:56)
5. 'The finest wines available to humanity' (2:04)
6. Politics (1:49)
Original poster
Production stills
Bronco Bullfrog (1969)
Elphick, Michael (1946-2002)
Grant, Richard E. (1957-)
Griffiths, Richard (1947-2013)
McGann, Paul (1959-)
Robinson, Bruce (1946-)
HandMade Films