Living disillusioned in a post-Brexit Instagram-filtered age, standing at the periphery of the job market in a state of horror as the surplus of impressive graduates wander by, it is easy to feel alone. Marwood is the voice of reason when he reassures Withnail “we’re in the same boat”; we are all Withnail when he fires back “Stop saying that! You’re not in the same boat. The only thing you’re in that I’ve been in is this fucking bath!”
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“I have some extremely distressing news. We’ve just run out of wine.”
Withnail’s first utterance in his iconic sophisticated slur sets the perfect tone for Bruce Robinson’s unbeatably British, ingenious tragicomedy Withnail and I. Last year marked the film’s 30th anniversary, and like a fine wine, Withnail and I has improved with age.
When Robinson wrote and directed this largely autobiographical low-budget film in 1987, he did not anticipate that the trials, tribulations, and hilarious mishaps of Withnail and “I” (played respectively by Richard E. Grant and Paul McGann) would leave such a legacy. A coming-of-age comedy based on two hapless drunken out-of-work actors struggling through the bleak aftermath of the swinging sixties, the film offers a nostalgic yet ultimately unappealing portrait of the 1960s bohemian lifestyle. Living in squalor so intense they feel “unusual” when they enter the kitchen, the eccentric self-deluding thespian Withnail and the slightly more low-key narrator “I” (Marwood in the screenplay) are both disenchanted with life.
The appeal of Withnail and I lies in its ability to reflect our flaws and fears whilst making them indisputably funny. In the documentary Withnail and Us, Robinson himself sums up the timelessness of Withnail and I as a movie that “touches the moment we’ve all had when we’re all broke, all starving, all aspiring, and all knowing that it might not work in our lives.” As a final-year student I rejoice in the bleak realistic portrayal of a kitchen filled with unidentifiable matter, an unwavering belief in the curative powers of alcohol, and the general unease of aimless direction. Marwood’s maudlin realisation that they “are indeed drifting into the arena of the unwell” in tandem with Withnail’s “I feel like a pig shat in my head” are sentiments embarrassingly yet undeniably relatable.
The heightened sense of desperation lies in the fact that Withnail and Marwood are not actually students, but thirty-year-old men on the biggest comedown of their lives after what the film describes as the “best decade in history.” The less proactive and more entitled of the two, Withnail, looks for acting work only part-time, committing himself instead to the art of mixology (in one of his less lucid moments, he downs some lighter fluid for a kick).
Their poverty lingers tentatively on the demarcation line between complete and utter despair, and a kind of decaying gentrified rite-of-passage. No other moment captures this balance quite as uniquely as Withnail’s horror at the state of the dishes: “The poop will boil through the glaze. We’ll never be able to use the dinner service again.” Wearing only his floor-length flapping coat and pink rubber gloves, Withnail’s theatrical outcry “I am an actor, reduced to the state of a bum” plays with the idea of suffering for your art, paying your dues, of being fashionably inauthentically destitute. Withnail’s character as the dark horse of an affluent family is made clear through allusions to his rich father, a background he betrays quite superbly as he bemoans in one of his typical rants that their flat lacks all “that reasonable members of society demand as their rights! No fridges, no televisions, no phones.” Despite the fact he is not currently living as a member of “reasonable society,” Withnail nonetheless turns down work as an understudy, believing it to be beneath him: “Bastard asked me to understudy Konstantin in The Seagull. I’m not gonna understudy anybody.” Withnail is the tragic anti-hero of Withnail and I: he is the more charismatic of the two, but his excessive hubris apparent in his sense of entitlement is his downfall. He also just looks a little tragic: he appears so perpetually unwell that you’ll feel inclined to eat a piece of fruit.
It is no stretch to replace Withnail with any British university student spiralling into similar despair at even the slightest violation of their “rights.” Such is the awkwardness of the student’s precarious privilege: Britain is full of melancholy students drinking coffee from a bowl whilst watching Netflix on an iMac, wearing their duvet like a poncho because it’s colder inside than it is outside.
The dastardly duo’s escape to Withnail’s fantastically camp Uncle Monty’s cottage in the Lake District turns out to be an ironically sobering experience; the hope of a picturesque trip fails in every aspect. A satirical subversion of sentimental visions of the English countryside takes a hilarious hold as the two clueless characters are shown to contend with continuous rain, randy bulls, an intimidating eel-reeling poacher, and their own complete lack of basic survival skills. Cooped up in a “shack” with nothing to keep them warm but a cigarette, the two quickly come to realise that they have somehow managed to go “on holiday by mistake.” Indeed, Robinson presents a humorous commentary on the city dweller’s romantic stereotype of country living in the form of Marwood’s narration after his first unfortunate encounter with unwelcoming country folk: “Not the attitude I’d been given to expect from the H. E. Bates novel I’d read. I thought they’d all be out the back, drinking cider and discussing butter. Clearly a myth.” Well, quite. Inescapable mud isn’t going to keep anyone in a good mood for very long.
Not having much luck with the belligerent local farmers, they don’t fare any better with the gentrified country folk, represented here in tweed and hushed voices in a well-to-do tearoom. Withnail and Marwood’s disharmony with country life manifests iconically in their drunken refusal to leave the tearoom, insisting that they are not “drunks,” they are in fact “multimillionaires”: for a sentiment that pervades most student bars, their logic is exquisitely relatable. Withnail demanding “cake” and “the finest wines known to humanity” when threatened with a call to the police endures as one of the film’s most classic scenes.
Withnail and Marwood’s emergence from the sixties, bleary-eyed and broken, is what many of us feel as our retreat at university comes to an end and we stand anxiously on the precipice of adulthood. Generation Y have an unfair reputation for narcissism, a band of indignant millennial Withnails sitting on our high horses of humanism and Wi-Fi-indebted wisdom, responding to criticism in a Withnail-esque paranoid tone: “How dare you? How dare you? How dare you call me inhumane?” Living disillusioned in a post-Brexit Instagram-filtered age, standing at the periphery of the job market in a state of horror as the surplus of impressive graduates wander by, it is easy to feel alone. Marwood is the voice of reason when he reassures Withnail “we’re in the same boat”; we are all Withnail when he fires back “Stop saying that! You’re not in the same boat. The only thing you’re in that I’ve been in is this fucking bath!” The most selfish burden of youth is wanting to believe we are unique in our struggles, when of course we are not. Our hardships are so painfully predictable that they become dull.
Having said that, it is true that some of us will have to work harder than others to succeed. It is noteworthy then that Withnail’s privilege works against him, and the comparatively humble in origin Marwood is the one who achieves his dreams. Withnail’s inflated sense of self drives him to rationalise turning down work that no struggling actor in their right mind would do. Today privileged out-of-work actors can live comfortably amongst their Apple products, dressing like poor Marwood in that ironic way only rich hipsters can afford. That, however, does not make them a Withnail. Withnail’s struggle is not unique, but his delusion is. Withnail was born with a silver spoon, but instead of using it to nourish himself (both literally and metaphorically), he just holds it, desperately waving it around till the world notices and gives him what he is owed.
Withnail and I is an honest, human depiction of the contradictory feeling that at once everything and nothing is possible. Withnail’s exclamation “I’m going to be a star!” is reminiscent of the idealism and spontaneity of youth, which is shown to wither and die. The film’s concluding message is one of growing up, moving on, and fading friendships. In the wake of a disastrous vacation, the goodbye between Withnail and the newly groomed Marwood, off to realise his dream in acting, is heartbreaking. We know Withnail is not destined for such great things. Ultimately this cult classic is about beginnings and endings and all the messy stuff in between. The film itself remains timeless.
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All images are screenshots from the DVD.