Withnail & I (1987)

Written and directed by Bruce Robinson

The feeling of hitting rock bottom only to then get dragged along it is an experience most people can recognize. For some, there’s a sobering resolution at the end, or at least the realization that you’ve made it through it all with your essential self somewhat intact. It means you’ll fight another day. 

The alternative is terrible to consider, equally awful to observe, and it’s incredible what writer-director Bruce Robinson has achieved with Withnail & I, a story of two men’s misadventures that both garners concern and elicits contempt for its leads while drawing out laugh after laugh even as the woe piles on.  

There’s the “I”, and there’s Withnail: both of them two mostly-unemployed actors and twenty-somethings about to succumb to the cumulative hangover of the past decade, as the 70s are coming to collect on the swingin’ 60s indulgence. Surrounded by squalor, they squabble, with I at the end of his patience with it all and Withnail still in the clutches of a delusion lying to him about his stature, future and whatever else would be immediately obvious to all. 

They’re trapped in their own headspace, trapped with each other, but since they cannot change either of those facts, they decide they’re really just trapped in London. A weekend in the countryside will set them straight, surely? 

Richard E. Grant  is a deplorable icon as Withnail, an all-time heel: a dishonest prick, an abuser, a manipulator, a loudmouth, the perfect example of a hurting soul who hides himself under layers of abrasive fuckery. 

Paul McGann as the besieged narrator is a more sensitive soul at his limit with the whirlwind force he shares a flat with, but he struggles to tear himself loose. Turned paranoid by the drugs he’s been doing, he’s similarly afraid of what he’d even be without it all, and you sense a codependency in both these men.  

Together, they’re a comedy of errors and insults, with Withnail biting his thumb at anyone who looks at him long enough, and I either taking the fall for his partner’s wrongs or tasked with diffusing whatever altercation is brewing under the fire Withnail’s stoking. 

We all know a lesser Withnail from our own lives. Someone who skirts manners and convention and is completely tonedeaf to any social situation, listening only to himself and blind to all but his vision of things. They provide entertainment in turn, a slightly shameful spectacle that we watch from the wings. Of course, when reality does shatter them, which it must every once and while, they turn into hangdog puddles of dependency. Outsiders can question why we keep them in our company, because they’re such assholes. The reason is inexplicable sometimes, but it can be explained by the fact that they’re our asshole. 

Withnail & I is about the time when those bonds start to fray. It’s too funny to truly depress you and too sad to uplift you – a true chuckle-sigh of a film. Watching one man grasp at escape from his own life has a certain sting to it when the other person, for which he shares a weird begrudging tenderness, is still far from any such realization. 

Neither part works well without the other, andWithnail & I lets you reminisce about drunken teenage escapades that saw you barrel through the night with an unapologetic abandon that we all seem to lose as we grow older. 

We know we were being twats then, and yet you’d never do it differently if given the chance. It’s that same disapproving grace you bestow on Withnail & I – those boys are hard to watch, and yet easy to forgive. 

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