It’s the end of an era for a Bohemian bittersweet bromance…
A pair of unemployed and often drunk actors take a break from their dismal London life at a country cottage in the Lake District.
Withnail and I Original Theatrical Trailer, Arrow Video and photos © Handmade Films
1969. When thinking of this particular year, many think of a man on the moon or of hippies and Woodstock. But for many of us its a British film set in this year Withnail and I (1987) that is recalled. This film – made in the late 1980s – tells of the last days of friendship between those flatmates Withnail and Marwood.
Marwood the “and I” in the film title, is not called by his name throughout the film. Marwood’s surname also appears in the original script but his surname was spotted in the film by eagle-eyed fans. The possible presence of his first name in the movie wildly debated.
The film script was adapted from an unpublished novel written in 1969 by the film’s director and writer, Bruce Robinson. This plot was based partly on his then true-life experiences sharing a flat with an actor. This actor becoming the real-life inspiration for his colourful character, Withnail.
Withnail and I now is a cult film with a large fan base following, who regularly visit its film locations, remember its legendary soundtrack and can quote its more memorable lines word for word. It’s a tall order for those who partake in the film associated drinking game.
The film takes us back to late 1969, with an instrumental track of A Whiter Shade of Pale. Paul McGann as Marwood – as the narrator – is one of two unemployed actors living in a cold and unhealthy looking Camden Town in London. He shares a flat with the unpredictable, unemployable actor – surprisingly with an agent – Withnail (Richard E Grant).
Their flat looks like a bomb hit it with dirty dishes piled up, disorganised clutter and mess everywhere. And a possible rodent infestation. Mary Poppins would be horrified just looking at it. Both she and Giselle from Enchanted (2007) would both be less likely to sing about the joys of tidying up seeing this chaos.
Marwood, the quieter, more reflective one of the pair appears to only one to notice it. He appears more sensible than Withnail and actively applying for acting work. With the eccentric and well-educated Withnail drinking away any money he gets. Withnail’s gaunt pale features indicating more than a possible alcohol problem.
He’ll even drink lighter fluid as a hair of the dog first thing in the morning. The pair on escaping the squalor and Danny (Ralph Brown) the drug-dealing neighbour, go for a walk through the park to the pub. The pair decide to take a break from it all. This leads to the men dressing in suits – unheard of for both of them – and visiting Withnail’s rich and generous Uncle Monty (Richard Griffiths) in Chelsea.
Monty is a sensitive soul and was a one time actor. The theatrical Monty has a passion for his old love and growing root vegetables in pots is marginally more eccentric than his nephew. Monty takes a bit of a fancy to Marwood. Withnail is oblivious to this and everything else, as he has drunk most of Monty’s drinking cabinet.
However, the trip is a success as the flatmates procure the key for Monty’s holiday cottage in the Lake District. The next day they set off for Penrith in the Lake District. The pair’s old banger of a car arriving at the cottage in pitch darkness and the rain. Over the first few days, their ineptitude shows.
The cottage has no food, water and electricity leaving the pair unable to cope. The pair use furniture for firewood and resort to plastic bags for wellies (having burnt their boots for warmth). The London-based boys try – and often fail – to fend for themselves, to farcical effect.
This seen at its best, when a live hen is provided as nourishment from a well-meaning neighbour. This providing a lesson in how not to prepare a chicken from scratch. The humourous events following this showing how unsuited they are to rural life. The men finding their neighbours more unsociable than those back home.
Withnail upsets the local poacher, Jake (Michael Elphick) in the pub with one of his more wilder rants. The pair is so terrified of his revenge – which increases after seeing Jake lurking round their cottage – they end up sleeping together in one room. This also due to Withnail’s drug withdrawals and paranoia. However in the dark and at the dead of night, they hear footsteps with Uncle Monty unexpectedly arriving with firewood and food.
And in the morning, Monty is in hot-blooded pursuit of Marwood (in a not so subtle way). Withnail, now well fed and watered (with alcohol naturally) by his genial host agrees to stay for the weekend against Marwood’s wishes. Kind Monty provides them with the cash to buy more suitable footwear, and the pair use it for drink.
Then with Marwood and Withnail both drunk, they upset the owners of a local cafe requesting cake (to soak up the alcohol (call it Withnail logic)). And after forgiving the (more honest) Marwood for leading his (oft lying) nephew astray (!), Uncle Monty makes his move…
Richard E Grant is a screen stealing delight, as the wonderfully flamboyant and unpredictable Withnail. In this, the first (yet most memorable of his film roles), Grant makes a stirring impact on us. As the actor brings Withnail to life as an iconic and legendary character despite his foibles. We can feel his character’s reaction to life, often with deadpan humour in the face of adversity.
This a role that can only be Grants. Others who were considered for this part included Daniel Day Lewis, Bill Nighy and Michael Maloney. Maloney – who was seen as Juliet Stevenson’s date in Truly Madly Deeply (1990) – reportedly turned down the role after reading the script. Kenneth Branagh asked to be considered for the role rather than that of Marwood but this offer declined. Richard E Grant, however, inhabited this role with his tall, “Byronesque looks”. His strong presence made this ultimately tragic character a likeable one.
Paul McGann as Marwood, Withnail’s rock, apparent best friend and drinking buddy and his sidekick was the only one considered for this role. McGann was reportedly dismissed from the role due to his Liverpudlian accent, and then other actors considered. He was then reinstated to the role on condition he used a Home Counties accent.
Richard Griffiths is a joy as Uncle Monty in a role perfect for this wonderful character British character. Darlin’ Husband reports he was surprisingly only 38 on filming. I also read that Ralph Brown secured the role of Danny appearing as his interpretation of this role at the audition. His wonderful Laandan drawl befits his comic character.
The wonderful, undeniable chemistry with these mismatched buddies is a treasure to see and watch. The actors showing a fun, amiable rapport from the start of this film and on reading the script, it is now it is so obvious, a screen double act that only these actors can portray. The quotes are taken from the film’s IMDb page HERE.
Withnail: Right, you fucker, I’m going to do the washing up!
Marwood: No, no, you can’t. It’s impossible, I swear it. I’ve looked into it. Listen to me, listen to me! There are things in there, there’s a tea-bag growing! You haven’t slept in sixty hours, you’re in no state to tackle it. Wait till the morning, we’ll go in together.
Withnail: This IS the morning. Stand aside!
Marwood: [holding him back] You don’t understand. I think there may be something living in there, I think there may be something alive.
Withnail: What do you mean? A rat?
Marwood: It’s possible, it’s possible.
Withnail: Then the fucker will rue the day!
This wonderful British banter between the friends is also seen in the scrapes they get into together. This written in such a wonderfully British manner and showing the film as the dramedy it is. Another wonderfully written scene set in a coffee shop is another one of the most comically played, where the actors playing actors ham up their acting skills pretending they are location scouts with each line complementing rather than upstaging the other.
However my favourite lines sums up the whole film has both tragic and comic undertones;
Withnail: We’ve gone on holiday by mistake.
Finally going back to that scene with the hen being prepared for eating,
“Marwood: Parkin’s been. There’s the supper.
[a live chicken is standing on the table]
Withnail: What are we supposed to do with that?
Marwood: Eat it.
Withnail: Eat it? Fucker’s alive.
Marwood: Yeah, I know that, you’ve got to kill it.”
The events following this conversation will be in your head for a very long time. As someone who often can’t look at these type of scenes, I was grateful there was no blood involved. But recalling that glimpse of that “prepared” chicken in the oven, it’s still a wee bit grim yet hilariously funny. I’d like to the think no chickens were harmed in the making of this film. But I’m too chicken to ask that Withnail actor who was plucked from near obscurity, for this flying start to a film career.
Weeper Rating: 😦 😦 /10/10
Handsqueeze Rating: 🙂 🙂 🙂 /10
Hulk Rating: /10
This post was entered into A Shroud of Thoughts Rule Britannia Blogathon. Other posts with this cast include Richard E Grant in Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Paul McGann and Grant starred as Doctor Who. Richard Griffiths in About Time and Michael Elphick starred in Eastenders.