It’s probably been 10 years since I last watched Withnail & I, when, I have to admit, I had enjoyed it but I don’t think quite ‘got’ it. With today’s sad news about Richard Griffiths, and the bombardment of Uncle Monty quotes and YouTube clips appearing on my Facebook and Twitter feeds, I thought, as I had a free afternoon, I’d give it another watch.
The main thing that struck me about the movie was that indeed I now feel I ‘get’ it, at least in a sense.
For me it sits as almost a companion piece to Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas (both the book and the film, with whom it shares artist Ralph Steadman in common) as it takes a look at the end of an era and a loss of innocence. While Hunter S. Thompson’s work explored the death of the “American Dream” and the loss of innocence brought to the USA by events such as Vietnam, Altamont and the Manson Family, Withnail & I signals the death knell for “Swinging London” as 1969 draws to a close.
This larger loss of innocence is reflected in both Withnail, and I’s, moving into their 30s as well, as they are clearly moving, mentally, from a state of over grown childhood to adulthood, though they both seem to be handling it in different ways, at least by the movie’s climax.
So, before I get to anything else Withnail & I is a masterful exploration of growing up and the loss of innocence, which is an inevitable part of that.
The way it does this however is the film’s masterstroke as such themes could, in the wrong hands, be overwrought and ponderous. What we get here, however, is a deft, dark, farce that drops us straight into the oncoming hangover and keeps us, along with characters, on the knife-edge between the night before and the morning after for an hour and 42 minutes.
The performances from the aforementioned Griffiths as Monty and his nephew, one of our titular characters, Richard E. Grant’s Withnail are both note perfect caricatures of the era who veer from hilarious to, at times, threatening with an ease which demonstrates both actors skill, particularly the famously teetotal Grant who fills the shoes of the alcoholic and addicted Withnail with aplomb.
For me though it was Paul McGann, credited brilliantly simply as “…and I” who is the often unsung but undeniable best performance, and beating heart, of the film that anchors it to the real world no matter the exploits of his companions.
These three performances serve to anchor the loosely autobiographical script from writer/director Bruce Robinson in a world that spans reality and fantasy in just the right way as, while it is clear everything is a heightened recounting of events, we are left with the impression that maybe it wasn’t as heightened as all that.
The film ends on a note that, much like the rest of the movie, treads the line between darkness and light and ultimately makes Grant’s Withnail into a true mythic archetype of a figure which, it seems to me, is why so many of his lines from this film have become so quotable and why the film has attained such cult status.
After re-watching Withnail & I I was left with the feeling that this film is not the sort of thing we are likely to see again as it was made at a time that dealing with the issues it does in the manner it does was spot on, but, that while its unlikely anyone will make anything like it again its themes and humour will continue to ring true for a long time to come.