I often struggle to remember that Withnail & I came out in 1987. Its retro aesthetic rings so true that I could comfortably believe it came out in 1969, and yet its humour is so well preserved that I could just as easily accept that it had come out last year. It is, in equal measures, new and old; silly and serious. It’s a film that thrives on contradiction, down to the simplest idea that anybody could go on holiday ‘by mistake’.
Lovingly dry and cringe-inducingly dark, Withnail & I remains timeless, ironically, because it’s so indicative of a specific time and place. The late-sixties Britain here is one coming down from a high, realising – all too late – that the social liberation of the decade was actually little more than fluff: a series of platitudes now being used to ‘sell hippy wigs in Woolworths’. Here, the destitute are set to remain destitute, and it’s a problem for which they are partly culpable.
Liberally inclusive, conservatively scathing, and torn every way in-between, Withnail & I could easily be categorised as a work of realism, if just because the conflicts within are so pertinent. It’s a film in love with a decade and its people, but dismissive of their inaction; a situation that should sting familiar even now, in the wake of social media, in which activism appears to be as much a fad as it is a statement. To this day, the film’s characters are emblematic of political confusion; wise in retrospect, but otherwise stumbling blind (drunk) into an unforeseeable future.
“The greatest decade in the history of mankind is over”. It’s a line that sums up the mindset of all involved, and it’s delivered mere seconds after talk of drugged rodents, through lips pursed around a comically oversized spliff, by a drug dealer with no intention of moving on. Withnail & I isn’t po-faced or consciously dramatic: it’s poignant without any twee posturing; emotional without any obvious emotion.
Of course, it’s also a comedy. To introduce the film solely in terms of its political and social issues would be a misstep, considering that it is, above all, a laugh-out-loud film; one concerned with an escape from the world, rather than an engagement with it, and this and this alone is the thematic crux of the narrative. Again, it’s contradictory: it’s a film that says the most by saying the least, saving its overt chin-stroking for the final ten minutes and otherwise just having fun with its subjects.
At its core, Withnail & I is a light comedy that takes place in dark rooms. It directly veers away from the ‘murder and All-Bran and rape’ of everyday life in favour of the fear and mud and buggery of the countryside. The eponymous Withnail and ‘I’ (never directly named, although clearly an autobiographical representation of director/writer Bruce Robinson) are notable because of how little they actually say or do. The film’s narrative is sparse, revolving around the two’s pursuit of drugs, booze, and some peace and quiet; serving as a vehicle for what are essentially a long string of loosely connected comic episodes. It’s easy to argue that nothing actually happens – it’s even easier to argue that that’s the point.
Perhaps most famous these days for its black-livered drink-along fandom, Withnail & I is one of the most sharply written and deftly performed comedies of the last thirty years. Every other line is a memorable quote, whilst every other character sticks in the mind long after the film is over, from the drawling, sociopathic drug-dealer Danny (“I’ve drugged their onions”) to Withnail himself: Richard E. Grant in his most iconic performance (before which he had, apparently, never drunk a drop of alcohol in his life – impressive, given that Withnail has become the quintessential drunkard). Both Withnail and I are impoverished, but only as a matter of pride, ultimately lightening the film’s load, and positioning its characters perfectly as mock-tragic figures to be laughed at.
In some cases, you can laugh with them, too. One of the film’s most impressive achievements is that its characters remain empathetic in spite of their glaring narcissism. Both Withnail and I are uncaring, self-serving, and self-destructive to a fault, and yet they stray from the indulgent pitfalls of drug induced narratives like Hunter S. Thompson’s if just because they yearn for more. Upon first arriving in the countryside, Withnail’s petulance is telling; not merely an act of childlike rebellion, but rather an expression of anger over the realities of the British countryside – the loss of yet another ideal, in a time in which the decade’s boundless idealism was being aggressively curtailed. Withnail’s closing monologue, lifted verbatim from Hamlet, perhaps best summarises an inner conflict often glimpsed in all of the film’s characters: the belief that society – and maybe even life itself – has long passed them by.
Again: contradictions. Laughter and sadness melding together; perfectly pitched and endlessly quotable. I suppose it’s telling that I’m struggling not to just list my favourite lines, here. I suppose it’s also telling that I could stretch that list to double the length of this review.
Ultimately, Withnail & I is a film that charts the dynamic of change on both a small and a large scale. It’s a love letter to the down-and-out. It’s a comedy, it’s a statement, and it’s nothing and everything, all at once. It’s a laugh-out-loud study in sadness, apathy, and inaction that’s as vital now as it ever was, and for this alone it deserves to be seen.