A review of 'Withnail and I'

Glasgow University Magazine - 11 April 2006

'Withnail and I’ was one of those films that everyone but me had seen. Just as with ‘Napoleon Dynamite’, my friends mimicked the film’s slapstick moments to death – so I feared that the over-hype would naturally result in a huge disappointment for me when I finally got around to watching it.

The tale follows the miserable lives of two anarchic, shabbily dressed, ex-public school out-of-work actors at the wrong end of their twenties; Withnail (played by Richard E. Grant) and I (Paul McGann), who’ve somehow found themselves in the dank slums of London in 1969. The opening few scenes lend themselves to describing the mundane lives of the pair – a living hangover of booze, pills, insomnia and paranoia – portraying Withnail as the eccentric alcoholic, and ‘I’ as his fed-up, going-insane lodger with a twinkle of ambition in his eye. The early scenes are an odd cocktail of semi-slapstick comedy with melancholic undertones.

After an aggressive encounter with an Irishman in a pub, ‘I’ suggests an inspiring trip to the North, to a Penrith cottage belonging to Withnail’s gay uncle. The pair head off with suppressed enthusiasm to the rattle of the dodgy exhaust and Withnail swigging whiskey and howling at pedestrians. Their enthusiasm fades, however, as the “holiday by mistake” comically descends into a farce as rain, lack of food, inhospitable locals and the bitter cold generate yet more desperation and misery. The pair resume their continual fight for food and warmth by killing a live chicken and badgering a local farmer for wood and coal.

Uncle Monty returns to the cottage in typical flamboyant style, with ‘I’ having to fend off his attentions – but he gives them food and money, which they squander on booze to escape from the relentless penury and discomfort they were trying to flee in the first place. When they return to their flat in London to sign on for another week, Danny (their friend and drug dealer) is talking philosophically about the hippy dream gone sour, the end of the sixties, whilst smoking the infamous ‘Camberwell Carrot’ – a half-foot, inch-thick spliff. “They’re selling hippy wigs in Woolworths,” he says poignantly. Shortly afterwards, ‘I’ finds work in a play, and as a working thespian, he moves out to earn a living. An emotional farewell leaves Withnail toasting his departure - but now living alone in squalor.

So as the end credits rolled, I gazed down at the borrowed DVD case – and realised what a well-rounded film this actually was.