It's the end of the 60's, the end of a decade of uprising, revolution had created belief amongst the confusion, yet for Withnail and I, the present is a time of desperation, for dreams to wilt and bitterness to thrive in Bruce Robinson's comedic cult hit.
Richard E Grant is Withnail and McGann the enigmatic Marwood and 'I' whose memoirs form the explanatory statement of the title. They play a couple of failed yet desperately resourceful actors, struggling to find a part and fighting a losing battle against idle drinking and a worrying drugs intake/escape.
In a wickedly dark and hilarious opening exchange, they debate the washing up situation in their squalid quarters in Camden, the drunk ramblings of tall thin eccentric Withnail are a joy to behold as he debates the state of fame as opposed to his own lack of it. Their failings and unemployment see a decadent and empty lifestyle begin to take hold on existence; this is seen early as Marwood reflects in a greasy spoon café whilst aghast at the morning's headlines. His friend and flatmate resides back at their abode in comatose due to the previous nights obvious binge, he is a man consumed by laughable anger, a wonderful performance from E.Grant creating perfect humour in surely his most memorable creation, paving the way for a natural career persona.
Career stalemate has him berate scapegoat Marwood, whose neurosis is equalled by his talent as a writer and actor, the two form a friendship that here could only be found in resignation.
With the psychedelic age nearing its finale' the pair sense a needed change, the rants of fellow drug user friend Danny seem to convince them of this, they as Marwood exclaims are "sinking into the depths of the unwell." In a pub they have an encounter with an irate Irish trouble maker who catches McGanns scented boots, scrubbed with essence of petunia, hence, "Perfume Ponce", as he passes to the lavatory. Inside Marwood shows the first signs of the paranoia of masculinity that haunts the character throughout the film. Panicking at the situation regarding the side-burned aggravator out in the bar he notices writing on the wall that seems to point towards his own sexuality. He quickly informs E. Grant and the pair flee to realise their idea of escape, they follow up their plan and visit Withnail's bizarre and effeminate uncle Montague (Griffiths) in the hope of staying at his country retreat for a holiday. Hilarious scenes at his baroque residence see Marwood again come under pressure, this time the uncles interest and apparent homosexuality has him in turmoil, he recites his own memoirs of youth and time gone by with friend Wrigglesworth... the cousin revels in his friends unease, providing yet more moments of spiteful brilliance.
Eventually they obtain what they had come for, the keys to his remote cottage in Penrith and the two set off for their break amidst decaying concrete buildings being demolished to the soundtrack of Hendrix's "All Along the Watchtower". Excellent.
Consumption of yet more wine has the tormented Withnail plead for aspirin " There must and shall be aspirin" he shouts, as they arrive at the cottage greeted by torrential rain. They find little sanctuary however in the cold isolated and unfriendly interiors, chairs are broken for firewood, as the two require heat.
Morning sees McGann wander, invigorated by the green landscape, while his pale friend slumbers he explores the pastures and winding roads, discovering a cottage that could have a food supply, greeted by rudeness he is eventually told to look out for a farmer with a leg bound in polythene, he may be of assistance in their quest for nourishment.
Soon they huddle round a newly made fire in the cottage and dine on a freshly killed chicken, brought by the farmer, this accompanied by a fine bottle from Monty's cellar of wine.
After another hilarious encounter, this time with a rampant bull, the evening winds to a halt inside dank local alehouse "The Crow". A fire crackles as both sit resigned until the barman calls "time gentlemen". A poacher (Elphick) takes an immediate dislike to our pair and informs them of his intent on a nocturnal visit at the cottage armed with a dead eel much to the horror of Withnail who remains petrified at the very thought.
This, however, is not the deciding factor that alters events during their stay, the random arrival of Uncle Monty in the early hours sees the outcome of the holiday change, Marwood's fortunes take a turn for the worse, before a much needed turn for the better as we see later.
The seeds of infatuation glimpsed at Monty's flat in London are now in overdrive with the young actor the centre of the obese Uncle's attention, the uncomfortable and increasingly nervous Marwood ignoring the constant innuendos but yearning for departure as a result. Monty's absurdly eccentric speeches and clear goal has him in turmoil, but this is only the beginning. After a late night drinking session an advancing Uncle, grotesquely lipsticked and intent on liaison enters his room, the actor simulates sleep at first to keep on guard but soon realises its much safer to be awake. The Uncle it seems was told of the actor's toilet trading occupation in London, lies told by Withnail in order to use the cottage. Advances are quickly rebuffed with the desperate and fortunate 'I' of the title pleading his own untruth, narrowly escaping a torrid and extremely delicate situation.
There can be no forgiveness for Withnail this time, mental scars linger in the morning, made worse by an apologetic letter from the Uncle, the ageing thespian fleeing in the night shameful at his ultimatums after being told out of the strictest necessity that Withnail and Marwood were and still are lovers.
The remorseless E.Grant brushes aside the whole tragic incident, concerned only with his departed Uncle's sensational cellar of wine.
The film then has McGann receive a telegram informing him of a part in a production, he desires a return to London immediately, they soon head off, Withnail seated with a plate full of lunch, tilting a bottle and taking the wheel to the rebellious riffs of Hendrix. The wine soaked driver is a definate hazard on the road, stubbornly insisting that he is 'making time' as he swerves round fellow drivers, his extravagance is a hilarious moment, until they are stopped and pulled over by irate police.
Once back at the flat, they find Danny sprawled out in McGann's bed and his friend Presuming Ed in the bath, this is a shock but the news of Marwood's part brings yet more revelations, he's offered the lead no less, leaving Withnail facing imminent loneliness, coupled with an already battered ego, 'Congratulations' offered with more than a tinge of envy.
All this fails to overshadow Danny's radical view on the state of the nation thus far and the effects on the drug induced mind, "They're sellin' Hippie Wigs in Woolworths Man" he proclaims whilst serving up what could be the finalised joint of a historical ten years of crystalised ideals. This and more in the form of the 'Camberwell Carrot' utilising twelve skins and potent enough to eradicate any morbidity revolving around the end of the decade, his speech is accompanied by the monotone chanting of huge African 'Presuming Ed ' the stoned Withnail laughs uncontrollably, with McGann obtaining a paranoia from his high for possibly the last time, thus symbolic and confirming the end of the romance of the sixties.
Marwood's future seems cemented yet he still needs to detach himself from Withnail's debauched shadow and fulfil the talent that he undoubtedly has, but as the film closes, the elegiac rainfall and the fawn green surroundings of Regents Park form the perfect backdrop as we see that possibly it's the potential of those left behind that can forever remain undiscovered.
God Bless George Harrison & Hand Made Films for making this masterpiece possible!Notice any mistakes? Review
9.2 out of 10Review Written by Nik Allen: Contact | More Reviews by Nik Allen