Withnail and I: written and directed by Bruce Robinson; starring Paul McGann (‘I’), Richard E. Grant (Withnail), and Richard Griffiths (Monty) (1987): A cult movie that seems now to be embraced by the mainstream, Withnail and I is quirky, funny, and occasionally self-indulgent. Cult movies often are self-indulgent — that’s partially how they become cult movies.
A certain type of person in his or her early 20’s is going to discover this film and see so much of himself or herself in it that it will become a signpost for that certain time of life when some people don’t entirely know what’s coming next, but do know that what’s going on now has to end, and soon.
Withnail is a very, very unsuccessful actor in London in his late 20’s; ‘I’ is a slightly less unsuccessful actor and Withnail’s roommate. It’s autumn of 1969. They’re drunk a lot and stoned a lot. Their apartment is overrun with dirty dishes, rats, and the occasional loveable drug dealer. Withnail cons his uncle Monty (a flaming Richard Griffiths) into giving them the keys to his country cottage. They go off for a restorative weekend in the country.
‘I’ narrates the film — writer-director Bruce Robinson based the events on things that happened to him over a five-year span — with a paranoid, puzzled elan. Withnail, perpetually drunk and perpetually, outlandishly over-sized in speech and gesture, is both frustrating and magnetic. Griffiths’s Monty, initially a caricature, grows into a sympathetic character without losing his own out-sized charm. A lot of the humour of the country sequences springs from the utter incompatibility of the two leads with country living — they might as well be trying to vacation on the moon without spacesuits.
Grant’s Withnail is the flamboyant, self-destructive, untrustworthy showpiece of the film, while McGann holds down the fort with his befuddled, panic-attack-prone protagonist. To some extent, it’s like a Sherlock Holmes movie with no crime.
There’s a certain sadness to the end of the film that I imagine a lot of people identify with the end of their college days, and an end to spending huge amounts of time with friends one will soon lose touch with, forever. I can imagine a lot of people hating this film, but those who will like it, will probably end up loving it. Highly recommended.