Thursday, June 7, 2012

Withnail & I Movie Review: 25 Years Ago This Month

In its first 15 minutes I half expected Withnail & I, Bruce Robinson’s semi-autobiographical tale of two unemployed actors boozing it up in the English countryside, to become a Beckett-influenced sojourn into existential trappings. While the two titular characters wallow in misery in their wretched London flat it begins to feel like two souls trapped in an endless loop. A little more happens than a bit of Waiting for Godot.

This was Richard E. Grant’s film debut playing Withnail and here he perfected his signature sneer, off-hand sarcastic remarks, and general temperament of displeasure with everything. His friend, flatmate and fellow struggling actor’s name is never spoken, although Marwood can be seen on an envelope. Played by Paul McGann he is no less a brooding personality than Withnail, although he is more replete with angst and a general queasiness about everything.

Together they live in squalor, lamenting their situation and the inability of any agent to get them a decent audition. They are dissatisfied with everything and nearly ready to give up when Marwood suggests they take the weekend at the country home of Withnail’s uncle Monty. Visiting him in his lavish and stately London home, they must endure his theatricality and imbibe him with platitudes to procure the key to the country home.

Hoping a weekend in the countryside will have a restorative effect, they set out completely unprepared for inclement weather or rustic living. They bring no foul weather gear, no Wellingtons for traipsing through the country mud, and they have to destroy the furniture for wood to burn for heat. But this is more than a fish-out-of-water comedy. Robinson makes it about two young men growing up (well, one of them refusing to) at the end of the swinging 60s. The end of the decade sort of hangs like a pall over Marwood and Withnail. They don’t quite know how to handle the suggestion that the changing of the calendar brings with it the end to dope smoking, binge drinking and general lethargy. Although the time period setting is somewhat essential to the story, it took me quite a while before I knew for certain that it was not set contemporaneously with the time it was made. So in spite of being necessarily set in 1969, there is a timeless quality to the film.

Their time in the country brings more surprise than cure. Withnail half expects all the local conversation to be about things farm-related. Unable to purchase food for lack of local supermarkets, they strike a deal with a local for a chicken, which arrives still breathing. What could have very easily become a slapstick comedy remains fiendishly clever and darkly funny because of Robinson’s keen wit.

When Monty shows up to spend time with the lads, believing he might have a romantic fling with Marwood, the story transitions to a bedroom farce. You can almost see the possibilities of its being presented as a stage play. This turns out to be a welcome respite from the negativity and dark humor that Withnail engenders and also augurs the beginning of real tension between the two friends and their divergence as Marwood prepares to move on with his life, grasping firmly to life as the 1970s quickly approach.

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