I remember a few months ago going absolutely mad for a film called How to Get Ahead in Advertising. It was a film that completely blew my mind – it was such a zany, insane and bizarre film, and it featured Richard E. Grant in one of the most committed and most entertaining performances I have ever seen. However brilliant as How to Get Ahead in Advertising was, it was always considered the “lesser” of the two 1980s Bruce Robinson masterpieces, and it was only now that I realized why that was true. Withnail & I is one of the greatest films I’ve ever seen, and its status as a cult film is so deserved. Much like How to Get Ahead in Advertising, it is just a film that can only be described as utterly bonkers – and there is deep brilliance along with it.
Withnail & I is about two actors, the titular Withnail, and the other, the unnamed narrator (who apparently is named Peter Marwood in the screenplay). Both are “resting” actors (a euphemism for the fact that neither of them are capable of securing any form of acting job, and it seems like no one actually desires employing them). Tired of their squalid Camden Town flat, they set out to the countryside to have a holiday. It seems like a conventionally sweet, simple film – and honestly based only on the story, it doesn’t seem that exciting. However, when you dig a bit deeper into it, it becomes a lot more clear as to why Withnail & I is one of the greatest comedy films ever made.
Bruce Robinson’s life as a young, struggling actor is certainly a fascinating and eventful one. In Withnail & I, there is not any doubt that Robinson based the character of Marwood on himself (insofar as to have blatantly stated that this film is based heavily on his own life in the late 1960s). A struggling actor, he and his friend Vivivan MacKerrell (who is the inspiration for Withnail) were heavy-drinking, rogue actors that would do anything, even a cigar commercial if it meant they could continue their habits of heavy drinking. Robinson crammed so much of his own life into this film, and a few years of his life are compressed into a matter of weeks in this film, and many figures from his own life find themselves into this film that isn’t at all an autobiography, but rather inspired by the experiences of two very strange young men. Autobiographical films are tricky – everyone looks at their past experiences with rose-tinted glasses, and it would have been so simple for Robinson to portray his early career as being one of tragic misfortune by means of other external factors. Rather, he told his life story through blatant tragicomedy, which is something extraordinary to do – to make yourself look so reckless and irresponsible is a dangerous game.
Paul McGann plays Marwood, and he is fantastic when he is being the sensible, honest of the pair, but also even better when he is on the verge of a nervous breakdown, on his way to going absolutely insane because deep down, as much of an honest and honorable person he is, he is also far from being normal. McGann was great, but he was not the best part of this film – but that is obviously understandable – Robinson doesn’t seem to be someone who would make the character he based on himself the most flamboyant and entertaining character. McGann plays the role very well, and when he hits a high, he hits it brilliantly. He is the emotional core of this film – without him, this film would simply be a high-adrenaline junkie film, with shades of Hunter S. Thompson and Monty Python’s Flying Circus thrown in. McGann’s presence brings humanity and a much more visceral nature to the film – he adds realism to it, because Withnail is a completely bizarre character, and without Marwood to balance him out, this film would simply just be far too insane.
Richard E. Grant is one of the most underrated actors working today, and in his debut here, he has never been better. He has superb comic timing and plays the role with wide-eyed insanity. Robinson’s script was already hilarious, but Grant simply takes it to the next level with his performance as Withnail. He fulls commits to the performance, and much like the aforementioned How to Get Ahead in Advertising, he puts all of his talents on display here. Absolutely bizarre and endearing to a fault, he gives a performance that is an absolute masterclass for any actor looking to play a character that is completely off-the-wall but also very subtle and reserved in his intentions. Grant’s performance in Withnail & I is quite simply a transcendent experience, and while he is not an obscure actor by any stretch of the imagination, I am quite disappointed that his brilliant performances in this and How to Get Ahead in Advertising didn’t add up to a far better career. I doubt any actor could have done what Grant did here any better, and that is the mark of an indelible, unique performance that will live on forever.
A special mention has to go to Richard Griffiths, who played the bizarre and predatory Uncle Monty so brilliantly, and I would have loved to see a spin-off film based only on Uncle Monty, because the character is really fantastic, and Griffiths makes him an absolute scene-stealer. Based overtly on Franco Zeffirelli, who apparently heavily flirted with a young Bruce Robinson in the 1960s on the set of Romeo and Juliet, Griffiths plays Monty with such dignified sleaziness, and imbues the character with such a real but terrifying quality – it has to be said that the portion of the film that sees Uncle Monty attempting a romantic relationship with the utterly unwilling Marwood are some of the most hilariously terrifying moments in any film, regardless of genre.
Withnail & I has crackling dialogue, which is only made better through the brilliance of the three main characters. Robinson made a hilarious film that is also filled with such poignancy – there are many tender moments, that makes this a strangely sentimental film, along with a riotous comedy. It is an absolutely delightful film, and despite its long running length, the film simply just flies by, but not without giving you a sense of poignant hilarity. It is just the perfect film – great performances, a brilliant script and dedication from everyone involved. It really deserves its status as a cult legend, but it also deserves to be seen as one of the best comedy films ever made – because that is exactly what it is.