In my last post I briefly alluded to my all-time favourite movie, Withnail & I, and its central role in my standard cure for a hangover. And I thought it was high time I devoted a full entry to it. After all, it’s a pretty London-y movie, even bearing in mind that much of it is set in Penrith.
Withnail (right) and I (left)It centres around two out-of-work actors living in bohemian squalor in Camden at the tail end of the 1960s. Marwood (the "I" of the title, played by Paul McGann) is our narrator, seguing into philosophical monologues and paranoid flights of fancy. Meanwhile, the flamboyant and self-destructive Withnail (Richard E. Grant in what is possibly still his most famous role) dreams of greater things while drinking literally anything he can lay his hands on. In an effort to drag themselves out of a rut, they charm Withnail's Uncle Monty (Richard Griffiths) into lending them his cottage in the Lake District. Upon arriving, they discover that the weather is terrible, the cottage is a wreck and the locals hate them. And things kinda go downhill from there."This is a far superior drink to meths. The wankers don't drink it because they can't afford it."Oh, and it's a comedy. Now, if you've not seen the film, it doesn't exactly sound like the most life-affirming of movies. Actually, it sounds like a recipe for a bleak Swedish arthouse movie down at the Curzon. There's very little plot. Such plot as there is mainly serves to hang the dialogue off.But what dialogue. It must be the most quotable film of all time. Almost every line is a quote. Get two fans of Withnail & I together and expect upwards of a quarter of an hour of "We've come on holiday by mistake!" and "Hair are your aerials. They transmit the signals from the cosmos. This is the reason why bald men are so uptight."Ralph Brown as Danny the Dealer. He played basically this exact same character again in Wayne's World 2.Much of it hinges on the performances. Grant and McGann have never been better - Richard E. Grant seems to have been practically born into the role (although, ironically, he is and was a teetotaller, making research for the role a very uncomfortable process). Ralph Brown also deserves praise for his performance as the merchandise-addled dealer Danny, a role he's unofficially reprised at least twice (in Wayne's World 2 and Coronation Street - there may be other instances).The direction is also highly effective. It's fair to say that the recreation of 1960s Camden, filmed in 1980s Notting Hill, is perhaps not the most convincing illusion - for one thing, the urban grotesquerie that we call the Westway is very visible in a number of shots. However, the atmosphere of grime and decrepitude is magnificently captured. This is helped in no small part by the evocative choice of period soundtrack. Procul Harem's 'A Whiter Shade of Pale,' Jimmy Hendrix' cover of 'All Along the Watchtower' and the Beatles' 'While My Guitar Gently Weeps' all contribute to an air of melancholy small-scale apocalypse around the characters. The latter song is particularly noteworthy - Beatles songs are not often used in film soundtracks, other than cover versions, but George Harrison's Handmade Films put up funding for this baby.Interestingly, and perhaps somewhat disturbingly, the film was inspired by real life. Writer and director Bruce Robinson based Withnail on an actor with whom he lived for a time, Vivian MacKerrell. Several incidents, including the notorious lighter fluid-drinking scene pictured above, were based on real life exploits. Robinson has said that while he never directly quoted MacKerrell, the dialogue is very MacKerrell-esque. MacKerrell, sadly, died of throat cancer. This wasn't helped by his insistence on keeping up the Withnail lifestyle even after starting treatment. One of his quotes from that period was, "There's as much iron in a pint of Guinness as in a portion of spinach. I'd be a fool not to take advantage of that fact.""I want something's flesh!"
An early draft of the screenplay, incidentally, ended on a similarly bleak note, with Withnail committing suicide by shotgun.
The film is, perhaps, the perfect cult movie. Not hugely known, particularly outside the UK, but with an absolutely devoted following. As I mentioned above, fans can be instantly identified by their ability to re-enact entire scenes. Most frighteningly, there’s a Withnail & I drinking game, which consists of matching the characters drink for drink. Yr. Humble Chronicler does not advocate this particular brand of hedonism, given that it’ll pretty much kill you within the first half hour.
I think what makes a cult film, really, is that you should feel that in some way, the film is speaking to you personally. As if you get this film in a way that most people don’t. For me, Withnail & I is such a great film because it almost feels as if the film gets me, rather than vice versa. And there’s no better situation to appreciate that feeling than when in the grip of a murderous hangover at 11.00 on a Sunday morning. Try it yourself.