In most American films, the ’60s are either portrayed as this time defined by hippie optimism or the social and political upheaval wrought by Vietnam. So it makes sense that a British dark comedy depicting the tail end of the ’60s would be beholden to neither sensibilities. Instead, we get a grey, dreary look at the ’60s filled with the typical amount of boozing associated with the UK, and with a little bit of drug use thrown in. That said, Withnail and I still manages to capture the freedom and wildness of the ’60s, just with a bit more of a cynical angle, courtesy of an English perspective and a couple decades of perspective.
The film starts at a filthy London flat in 1969, where Withnail (played by Richard E. Grant) and the I, Marwood (Paul McGann) live in squalor. The two are unemployed actors looking for work, and not finding much to accompany them other than the bottle. Looking for a change of scenery, the two go to visit Withnail’s eccentric uncle Monty (Richard Griffiths, aka Uncle Vernon from the Harry Potter movies), and get the keys to his cottage out in the country. After that, they’re seen drinking while driving the entire time on their trip to the country, cuz that’s just how these guys roll.
Once they arrive at the cottage, they find that they perhaps they should have thought through this holiday a little harder, though that’s hardly Withnail’s style, as his antics drive most of the film’s predicaments. The pair struggles to find food, and in the process get into a few spats with the people in town. Then Monty shows up to the cottage to stay with them, and starts to take a shine to Marwood. The clearly gay Monty makes some not-so-subtle moves on Marwood, before cornering him one night, in which Marwood wriggles his way out of the situation by claiming that him and Withnail are lovers. Sympathetic to their romance, Monty leaves the next morning. This happens just before Marwood gets a telegram saying that he’s gotten a part in play, which spurs them to return to London.
Something I’ve noticed when watching a lot of older films in the past few years, is that movies that depict homosexuality in any capacity usually don’t do a great job of it. Despite the fact that Withnail & I uses Monty’s sexuality in a somewhat comedic way, it’s still somewhat tasteful, or at least by ’80s standards. They actually give him a decent backstory in the form of a lover that got away, and the fact that Marwood doesn’t direct his anger toward Monty, but rather toward Withnail for putting him in this situation is, you know… fine. It’s about at the level of passable as that episode of Seinfeld where the journalist think Jerry and George are gay. Also, it becomes even more passable considering it was based on director Bruce Robinson’s own experiences with the director Franco Zefferelli.
In fact, most of the film is supposedly based on Robinson’s life as a down-and-out actor in London’s Camden Town in the late ’60s. It supposedly started as a novel that Robinson wrote in the early ’70s, which he eventually adapted into a film that finally got put into production through the financial backing of who else but George Harrison. This true-to-life nature certainly makes sense considering the film’s rambling, plotless nature. The film probably drags in a few places, but it mostly sustains itself through the performances of the (very few) main actors and Robinson’s script.
The script seems to be the main reason for the film’s cult status in Britain, which both makes sense and is a little odd to me. There are plenty of memorable scenes, and more than a number of funny moments, but I don’t know if I would call it “quotable”, which it seems to be hailed as in Britain. This may just be a matter of the more memorable lines being based on British turns of phrase that aren’t as common in America. It makes me wonder if a film like The Big Lebowski has a similar effect on Brits, though that film has a lot more to enjoy visually than this one.
Both the script and the performances are also the best place to look when trying to figure out why these characters aren’t completely insufferable. A bunch of self-important actors who seem to have as little regard for their fellow humans as they do for their livers aren’t exactly the most likable characters. But Richard E. Grant, in particular, makes Withnail absolutely the kind of drinking buddy you’d want to hang out with. He’s the kind of character, who much like this film, seems a bit unpleasant and depraved on first glance, but ultimately is pretty fun to hang out with.