#245 Withnail & I
(1987, Bruce Robinson)
“We’ve gone on holiday by mistake!”
Part of British movie culture is the Withnail & I Drinking Game. For every drink one of the characters in the movie has, you must drink the same, with the only exception being lighter fluid, which can be substituted for rum or something. But while this is part of our culture, the question remains, is the movie itself any good?
Withnail & I is about two out-of-work actors, Withnail (Richard E Grant), a drugged-up alcoholic with an inflated sense of self-importance, and, uh, “I” (Paul McGann), whose name we never learn, but also seems to be a bit more level-headed. Frustrated by their squalid flat and poor job prospects, Withnail convinces his wealthy uncle Monty (Richard Griffiths) to lend them his country cottage for a weekend break, which isn’t as helpful to them as first expected.
Often considered a classic of British comedy, I went into Withnail & I expecting a lot. I actually felt like I’d been missing out having never seen the film before despite it being such a classic. And now I’ve seen it, I can definitely say…I really had been missing out.
I hate reviewing comedies, since generally if I find them hilarious, that’s the end of it as far as my opinion goes, and Withnail & I is absolutely hilarious. It features lead characters who are utterly useless and grotty as hell, but never once overplays this, and is played surprisingly calmly all things considered, and that’s probably the film’s greatest strength.
Richard E Grant is the real star here, with his bumbling and drunken performance stealing the show. What’s impressive is how well Grant can maintain this spaced-out lazy slob of a man while keeping him charmingly well-spoken at all times. He might not be able to stop drinking or hang onto a pair of wellies, but he can pass for Shakespearian in his tone.
McGann is also fantastic, playing a much more level-headed character who spends most of his time exasperated by his friend’s actions. He’s the straight man to Grant’s funny man, and it’s a good dynamic. Not that McGann doesn’t have his fair share of comic moments, but overall his performance is the much more serious and subdued, and he does a great job.
The dialogue is also top-notch, with the conversations between the two being quick-witted with impeccable timing. I laughed out loud at Grant pleadingly delivering the quote at the top of the review, and the duo’s bafflement about how to kill and eat a live chicken is pure joy.
If I have any problem with Withnail & I, it’s the subplot about Monty, who is a repressed homosexual, preying on McGann’s character. While possibly fitting for the late 80s when the film was released, in today’s more liberal attitudes towards homosexuality, the whole sequence can feel a little uncomfortable and almost damaging.
But that’s about it. I struggle to explain exactly why I enjoyed Withnail beyond what I’ve stated, since I already stated I hate reviewing comedies, but needless to say this is a truly great comedy that has largely stood the test of time and deserves its classic status.
Starring Paul McGann & Richard E. Grant
Written by Bruce Robinson
Produced by Paul Heller
Music by David Dundas & Rick Wentworth
Cinematography by Peter Hannan
Edited by Alan Strachan
Favourite Scene: The perils of eating a chicken!
Scene That Bugged Me: Monty preying on McGann’s character was just unpleasant.
Watch it if: You want to see classic British comedy
Avoid it if: You’ve gone on holiday by mistake