Endorphins. The simple reason why Bruce Robinson’s Withnail And I is so beloved is because of the euphoric rush prompted by laughter, which itself is born from its eminently quotable dialogue. If you’ve heard them once, you’ve heard them a thousand times: “Perfumed ponce!”; “We want the finest wines available to humanity!”; “We’re not from London!” The meaning is often crass, but the poetic phrasing and cutting delivery is the stuff of genius.
This is why Withnail And I has remained an enduring favourite since its original release in 1987, adored by everyone from students to cinephiles to your acquaintance who only ever seems to be a double whisky away from deviating from enthusiastic social drinker to full-blown alcoholic.
This is the primary perception of Richard E Grant’s Withnail. Yet for such merriment, it’s a profoundly downbeat tale. It’s a collection of endings: the fading embers of the 1960s ideal; the melancholic conclusion of an accidental holiday which, in this case, also represents the end of a friendship, the sunset of Withnail’s ambitions and surely the end of his very existence. Even the chicken gets it. Cut the jokes, and you’re left with all the joy of a booze-themed Requiem For A Dream.
The central relationship of the film is shared between two struggling actors. The rampant egotist Withnail is a maelstrom of upper middle-class entitlement, acerbic wit and ambition without application. ‘I’, more commonly known as the Paul McGann-played Marwood, is almost his counterpoint; less cocksure, he can compensate for his lesser talent with endeavour, his eloquence primarily expressed in the film’s lyrical voiceover rather than in outspoken bursts of inspiration. This isn’t a story in which any consideration of spoilers is of importance. Their journey – yes, largely by mistake – towers over the heavy-headed haze of the narrative.
We have two young men haunted by dog-sized (and drugged) rodents and reduced to bickering about soup. To achieve his ambition of playing the Dane, Withnail really needs to progress with his career. Yet here he is, stuck in an endless whirlpool of alcohol – wine, whiskey, gin, cider, sherry, ale, lighter fluid – punctuated with Surmontil, amphetamines and the infamous Camberwell Carrot. What might be fantasies to others – at various points, Withnail declares himself to be a successful actor, a journalist and, laughably, not drunk (“I’ve only had a few ales,” he asserts to the police) – is simply a ruse; a charade to connect with someone else in order to procure another drink. Withnail is probably a misanthrope, but he’s undoubtedly an alcoholic.
“Yet here he is, stuck in an endless whirlpool of alcohol – wine, whiskey, gin, cider, sherry, ale, lighter fluid – punctuated with Surmontil, amphetamines and the infamous Camberwell Carrot.”
Marwood is also “drifting into the arena of the unwell” yet this lifestyle hasn’t yet defined him. There isn’t a moment in which Withnail isn’t drunk, high or hungover – or at least plotting to be drunk, high or hungover. By contrast, Marwood diligently maintains a diary as if it might one day represent the duo’s only testament of truth. He seizes the initiative to lure Withnail out of London in order to rejuvenate from this downward spiral. While Withnail effortlessly sinks a straight double gin early doors, the ethanol burn forces a grimace out of Marwood. It’s a case of professor and pupil: Yoda and Luke in a far more mundane environment.
Much like the film as a whole being falsely painted as a celebration of all things alcoholic, Withnail seems to be commonly misconstrued as an heroic figure – or, in correct contemporary terminology, a ‘complete ledge’. It’s easy to see why. On the surface, he’s living a hedonistic dream, he exudes acid-tongued charisma and he’d make for a great bonhomous beer buddy.
But a friend? Not so much: he lays the blame for the conflict with a hormone-imbalanced Irishman at the feet of his petunia-essenced chum, falsely sells out Marwood as a “toilet trader” to the aggressively flamboyant Monty, and his abdication of all responsibility results in the pair’s eviction from their ruined and ruinous home. It’s not even a self-centred mania, as every action is simply part of the pursuit of the next drink. The closest he comes to an altruistic action is drink-driving Marwood back to London so his younger pal can make it to an audition.
What’s more, he’s pathetic. “A trained actor reduced to the state of a bum” who’s almost 30 and still has a “sole flapping off my shoe”. Regardless of the inclination of his much-debated sexuality, there’s no real indication of relations with men or women. His one strategy for persuading the freshly shorn Marwood not to leave forever is to crack open an expensive bottle of stolen wine which he drinks himself, alone in the rain. Yes, he has money, but that’s due to the accident of his birth rather than the design of his intentions.
Then there’s the hook, which finally demonstrates the tragi-comedy of his entire situation. Previously, his acting talents have been confined to the wealth of his lies – Marwood’s time at the “other place”, “I have a heart condition” – but alone with the wet wolves of London Zoo, his enormous potential is finally evident for all to see. And so Withnail departs to the tears-of-a-clown circus waltz of the closing theme. At best, his fate is uncertain; at worst, as per the original ending, Withnail exits in a self-shot pool of claret.
As the thick-lisped drug dealer and inventor of the doll “that shits itself”, Ralph Brown’s Danny famously summarises: “The greatest decade in the history of mankind is nearly over. They’re selling hippy wigs in Woolworths. It is 91 days to the end of the decade and, as Presuming Ed here has so consistently pointed out, we have failed to paint it black.”
Ultimately, that’s what separates the two leads. Marwood is free to escape the London hell of “baked beans, All-Bran and rape”. Withnail is caught in an addiction-swamped time trap, a Groundhog Day which never evolves; his past and present have combined to set an unalterable collision course with his enemy of a future.