Withnail & I starts with an elegy. As the film opens viewers are greeted with the melancholy tones of saxophone virtuoso King Curtis’ instrumental cover of Procol Haram’s A Whiter Shade of Pale. A week after this rendition of the song was released, King Curtis was stabbed to death outside his apartment. Even though he doesn’t know it, King Curtis, in this wistful tune is memorializing himself. And in some sense, the entirety of Withnail & I is an elegy for the frivolity of youth. Underneath the trenchant dialog and the trivial plot, this film remains one of the most poignant portraits of that moment in late adolescence where the hard truths of adult reality catch up with the dreams and aspirations of the young.
One might be excused for mistaking this film for a bawdy alcho-comedy in the vein of Bad Santa. In the U.K. where Withnail & I has achieved cult status, there’s a well-known drinking game where film viewers replicate the drinking of the titular characters. More hardcore practitioners of this game are reputed to take a shot of lighter fluid along with Withnail. At one level, it’s that kind of movie. Little of consequence happens over its 107-minute runtime. The film’s protagonists, Withnail and Marwood [also known as “I”] are two out of work actors living together in the final days of the 1960s, closing out their twenties. They live in squalor and spend most of the day drinking. Trying to get away from it all, they go out on a trip to the English countryside where they spend most of their time drinking and taking advantage of Withnail’s uncle. And then they come home when Marwood gets a job and needs to move out.
Writer and first-time director Bruce Robinson constructs a screenplay that’s chocked full of laughs and quotable lines, which have undoubtedly added to the film’s prolonged afterlife. I know that at some point in my life, when I’m on a vacation that’s gone horribly wrong, I’m going to bust out the line, “We’ve gone on holiday by mistake!” I’ll look around with a knowing grin on my face, hoping that a fellow traveler will recall laughing at a rain soaked Withnail accosting an unsuspecting farmer. The script is accompanied by masterful comic editing and pitch perfect performances from Paul McGann as Marwood and Richard E. Grant as Withnail. Grant, in particular, imbues his unsympathetic character with a melancholy edge that elicits sympathy by the time the end credits roll.
Indeed, while the comic pyrotechnics and ridiculous antics of Withnail and Marwood draw people to watch Withnail & I, it’s the pathos flowing below its surface that makes the film stick in the memory. I first encountered Withnail & I a couple of years ago, as I was emerging from the long darkness of my early adulthood. Like so many other privileged people, I spent the decade after college feeling increasingly disillusioned as I waited for my childhood dreams to come to me. It was only as I approached thirty that I realized that the world was more complicated than I’d ever imagined, and that my dreams weren’t going to grant themselves.
Watching this film was like holding a mirror up to myself from my mid-twenties. Somehow these two pompous, selfish, rude, disgusting, jackasses not only aroused my sympathy, but reminded me of the self I had been. True, I didn’t spend my twenties as an unemployed alcoholic with dreams of the theater, but I, nevertheless inhabited the same existential landscape. Withnail & I reminded me of that period in my life where I stood on the precipice of adulthood while desperately hanging on to adolescence and wondering why I was so unhappy. As I watched Withnail and Marwood flail about in the countryside, I couldn’t help but feel sadness pooling below the laughs. Their irresponsibility, their drunkenness, and their cynicism emerge from a deep pain stemming from the recognition that the carefree days of adolescence have passed. Although Withail and Marwood don’t know it, they, like King Curtis, are engaging in a final performance before their adolescence dies.
And that’s why the film ends on such a heartbreaking note. Marwood, now dressed like a grown up, with floppy hair trimmed back, moves out of the apartment that he shares with Withnail. The breezy days where he has the luxury of drinking a bottle of wine with Withnail in the afternoon have passed. Marwood is ready to turn away from his adolescence to find the rest of his life. Withnail, on the other hand, doesn’t understand. He clings to his adolescence, refusing to move on. In the final shot of the film, as Withnail saunters away from the camera in the rain, I’m left to imagine the rest of Withnail’s life. I inevitably picture him dying in a ditch somewhere, drowned in wine, and dreaming of good times past. By the end of the film Withnail’s adolescence has died just like Marwood’s, but he has nothing to replace it with.
The end of adolescence is a part of most people’s lives. For some, that time of life seamlessly melts into an accomplished adulthood, while others struggle mightily to reorient themselves in the adult world. For me, Withnail & I reflects like no other film the fear, uncertainty, angst, and chaos that I meandered through during my twenties. As I watch the film now, from an island of existential stability, I see myself in both Withnail and Marwood. I’m just thankful that I followed Marwood’s lead and walked away as my adolescence died.
As we hope you discover or re-discover Withnail & I this week, this is what we'll cover:
- Filmography of writer-director Bruce Robinson
- Dissection of the film as an unusual buddy road trip
- Related Review of bawdy British comedy Gosford Park
- And more!