It’s (nearly) 2012! High time we made a collective admission; that is, for those of us who were there, or in my case, for those of us whose older brothers were there as the watershed moments went down___ the anti-war marches, sit-ins, Woodstock, the proto-occupy squats that regionalized for us as headlines in the Boston Globe about “hippies squatting on the Boston Common” (my brother L. “crashed” there with a group of suburban buddies addled by pot and the Beacon Street Union) and the birth of R-O-C-K ___ there is no definitive statement in any form on the madness that was 1969.
To each their own, or in the parlance of that day, whatever turns you on---I choose a film, over which more ink has been spilled since its appearance in 1986 than most Best Picture winners ever attract. To wit, Bruce Robinson’s comedy, Withnail and I., #29, on the BFI’s list of favorite British films of the 20th century. It’s a film for writers, druggies, drunks, poets, lovesick losers of all stripes, and ACTORS!!!!!!!!! It’s also about industry versus celebrity, Epicureanism versus stuffiness, the end of impossible friendships, and a near complete evocation of the spirit of an era.
The title characters are struggling young actors living in a squalid cold water flat in the Camden section of London. They have no money, no prospects, no food, and when the story begins, they are critically short of booze and drugs. Perhaps the earliest indication of the sinister quality of Robinson’s wit is during this first sequence when Withnail (Richard Grant), the gangly, pill-popping, scenery-chewing thespian demands BOOZE! and downs a can of lighter fluid. His bewildered flatmate is beside himself. His horror is compounded when Withnail starts looking for a chaser, maybe some anti-freeze. At this point, “I” reasonably complains that Withnail musn’t “mix” his drinks. Ha!
The film is semi-autobiographical, based on Robinson’s experience as a young actor in late 1960’s London, and Withnail is intended to mirror one of the actor’s in Robinson’s sphere, while the “I” or Marwood character, whose name is never uttered in the film, but appears on the telegram that informs him he has a callback for a spot in a summer company, doubles for Robinson.
Grant’s Withnail, a combination of old boy pomp, contempo degeneracy, and stagey narcissism, lies, bamboozles, mooches, saturates himself in whiskey, pints and wine, and manages to stay at once angry and self-pitying throughout. He is a miracle. He carries on, rages ahead, all the while increasing his best friend’s anxiety while Marwood (Paul McGann) tries desperately to hang onto some semblance of reality. The walls are closing in and Withnail can’t get an audition. Marwood seems on the verge of another one and this frustrates “With”.
W: I haven’t had a call in a month, and I've got a sole flapping off my shoe.
I: It will get better. It has to.
W: Easy for you to say, lovey. You've had an audition. Why can't I have an audition? It's ridiculous. I've been to drama school. I'm good-looking. I tell you, I've a fuck sight more talent than half the rubbish that gets on television. Why can't I get on television?
To relieve the tension, the two decide to take a holiday to Withnail’s Uncle Monty’s cottage in the countryside. Their stay at Crow Crag is perilous and ridiculous, with Withnail shouting at one point: “We’ve gone on holiday by mistake.” They run afoul of the local poacher, a farmer and his bull. The place is wet, cold and the Penrith tearoom is as stuffy as a cotillion; that is, until Monty (Richard Griffiths), a well-heeled homosexual who longs for better times when young men quoted poetry and basked in each other’s presence, shows up with enough provisions for a month.
Monty has motive; he's taken a love interest in Marwood, presumably on the basis of a lie Withnail told his uncle in order to procure the cottage in the first place. The seduction goes terribly wrong for Monty, whose rejection wounds him so deeply that he leaves in the middle of the night.
Griffith’s Monty is another small miracle. His honest misread of the situation between him and Marwood curries the kind of sympathy for his character that can only serve to expose the self-serving nature of his nephew even further.
When Marwood, willing to commit to the process, willing to be an ensemble player, gets invited to a second audition and eventually secures a spot, it’s the end of times between him and Withnail. However, this does not happen before they return to London and find Danny, their drug dealer, and his pal Presuming Ed squatting in their flat.
Danny (Ralph Brown) is both wasted purveyor of whatever suits your fancy and oracle of the 1960s. It is he who under the influence of a giant spliff called a Camberwell carrot puts the decade in perspective, “London is a country coming down from its trip. We are 91 days away from the end of the 1960s, the greatest decade in the history of mankind…and there's gonna be a lot of refugees. They'll be goin' round this town shoutin', ‘Bring out your dead.’”
Metaphorically that translates to the bittersweet farewell between Withnail and I, in the rain, outside the gates of the London Zoo. Marwood admits that he will miss Withnail but insists that “With” need not accompany him any further to the train station. He leaves the sopped and sodden Withnail quoting Hamlet to a pack of wolves. Earlier in the film, Monty, who not surprisingly once dreamed of being an actor said, “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.’”
This speech, of course, foreshadows Withnail’s fate; the wolves don’t get the act, and the world may tear him to pieces. Sadly, it's not likely anybody will know the greatness of his range, except of course, for us, who will find him and Robinson’s film unforgettable.