Two down-on-their-luck actors (Withnail and Marwood) find solace in drink and other substances. Seeking respite from their uneventful lives they escape up north to Penrith to Withnail's uncle's stone cottage. Faced with no modern conveniences, a bunch of oddball locals, and a surprise visit from an amorous "Uncle Monty", their wits are tested, along with their friendship.
Just as Monty Python's Life Of Brian (1979) is forever in danger of having its rare magic rubbed away by people drunkenly shouting out, "We're the People's Front Of Judea!" in the Students Union Bar, now the fate of Withnail And I rests in the unsafe hands of quote-reciting graduates demanding "the finest wines available to humanity" and rolling Camberwell carrots. But Withnail can take it. You probably even know someone who's played the Withnail And I drinking game (including the glug of Ronsonol), but even studenty idiocy on that scale cannot detract from the film's unique and lasting glory. Here is a comedy that, like Spinal Tap (19 84), Brian and The Holy Grail (1975), improves with age and repeated viewings. Being able to quote great chunks of it does not impair the enjoyment — although doing so in mixed company may impair the enjoyment of others.
It's hard to imagine a time when it wasn't considered a national treasure (it was voted 29th in the BFFs Best British Movies poll in 1999, above The Italian Job, Shakespeare In Love and Dr. No) — indeed, a time when Richard E Grant wasn't a much-loved public figure — but Withnail And I was a minor, underfunded anomaly in 1986, and Grant an unknown.
Bruce Robinson was an actor who'd been in Zefferelli's Romeo And Juliet (1968) and Ken Russell's The Music Lovers (1971), become disillusioned and allowed writing to take over. He actually penned Withnail as a novel in the winter of 1969/1970, while subsisting on discarded turnips and nicked milk in a dilapidated house in Camden Town with an old drama school chum called Vivian — the model for Withnail (The "I" of the title was Robinson himself).
He turned his novel into a screenplay (not an easy job, he claimed) and because it was obviously so personal, producer Paul Heller encouraged Robinson to direct the film himself, even though he had no form in this department. The budget was set at a modest £1.1 million once former Beatle George Harrison had counted — the now defunct — Handmade Films in (he read the script on a flight to New York) and casting began. Grant famously clinched the Withnail part with a spirited rendition of the "Fork it!" line, and Paul McGann had to promise to lose his Liverpool accent to become the unnamed Marwood ("And I"). If the wind had been blowing in another direction it could have been Daniel Day-Lewis as Withnail and Kenneth Branagh as I, although this is beyond the imagination, so born-to-it are Grant and McGann as the raddled eccentric and his sensitive foil.
The story is fairly slight — two out-of-work actors go to the country ("We've gone on holiday by mistake") where one is unsuccessfully pursued by the other's homosexual uncle and they return to North London when one of them gets an acting job. That's it. The entertainment lies in the texture — it's a comedy in that it's hilarious, but it is without actual jokes (in the normal sense) and is low on set-pieces (the urine test, the fishing expedition and ramming a chicken into a kettle are noble exceptions).
The laughs come from the fruity language — "I've only had a few ales"; "I mean to have you even if itmust be by burglary"; "Then the fucker will rue the day" and so on —the humanity (it's set in another decade but could be set any time), and of course the unrelenting squalor. Little wonder it strikes so many chords with those in higher education and squats. George Harrison and Handmade partner Denis O'Brien saw rushes before Robinson when the crew were shooting on location in the Lakes and apparently found the chicken scene "as funny as cancer" — out of context — and wanted Uncle Monty (Griffiths) to be more of a camp caricature to ensure easy laughs. To Robinson's credt, he stood his ground, and to theirs, they eventually left him to it. It is his self-belief that saw the unlikely project to fruition, his writing that made Grant's Withnail, Griffiths' Uncle Monty and Ralph Brown's befuddled Danny the dealer such memorable screen creations. Which is not to detract from the performances — these are actors who really "get" the gags — just to say that Withnail And I's genius flows from the written page.
In Grant's autobiography he recounts the "ache in his gonads" after reading just two pages of Robinson's script; it really is worth consuming in book-form, not least for the evocative stage directions ("Dostoyevsky described hell as perhaps nothing more than a room with a chair in it. This room has several chairs "). That Robinson was capable of such priceless work and yet seems unable to quite match it again (1989's How To Get Ahead In Advertising was just too obvious and he had a disastrous foray into Hollywood with moribund serial killer flick Jennifer Eight in 1992) merely tells us that Withnail is an even rarer pleasure than it at first seems: a comedy that truly comes from the heart. It's criminal that — due to a no-points/flat fee deal — its author doesn't see a penny from video sales (the medium from whence its popularity grew) or from the 1996 cinematic re-release (Robinson wasn't even asked). Still, he keeps a sensational cellar, and imagine the size of his balls.
One of the finest comedies known to humanity.