During the 1980s, George Harrison’s short-lived HandMade Films provided a minor industry for British independent cinema, from comedies like Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979) and Time Bandits (1981) to dramas like The Long Good Friday (1980) and Mona Lisa (1986). Even on its £1 million budget, Withnail struggled to get made. Producer Denis O’Brien lacked confidence, not seeing it as humorous. A few days into production, filming was cancelled; Robinson walked off. Many of scenes were paid for out of the cast and crew’s own pockets, not acquiring permission when the car drives around Finchley.
Akin to directors like Mike Mills, Robinson uses cinema as autobiographical narrative, adapting his experience living in Camden in the mid-to-late 1960s with housemates Vivian MacKerrell, Michael Feast and David Dundas, condensed to the space of two weeks. Working as an actor in the 1960s and 70s on films like Romeo and Juliet (1968) and Private Road (1971), Robinson uses cinema because he has a story to tell. As he relates in The Peculiar Memories Of Bruce Robinson (1999), he seeks primacy of authorial voice, wanting absolute creative control, aghast at changes to Fat Man and Little Boy (1989) and Jennifer 8 (1992). Robinson struggles to even allow actors to improvise, with specificity over performance.
Withnail (Richard E Grant) and I (Paul McGann) are unemployed thespians, caught between drama school and achieving acting dreams at the cusp between the 1960s and 70s and their 20s and 30s. In their rat-infested flat, the pair struggles to get by, between antique furniture and postcards on the mirror, suggesting they’ve travelled at least somewhere. A globe sits alone; a union jack is wrapped around a lampshade; I drinks coffee out of a soup bowl, in absence of a clean mug. Without heating and a broken thermostat, Withnail walks around in underwear, modesty protected only by his coat.
In the bathroom, as I shaves, they eat fish and chips, turning the toilet into a bin. Behind him, a poster of Harold Lloyd in Safety Last! (1923) hangs, bathed in anarchic specks of multi-coloured paint from the childlike door and yellow pipes. The pair are in constant battles with the landlord, dealer Danny (Ralph Brown) keeping the checks for himself. Sam Bain, co-creator of Peep Show (2003-15), took influence from the basic sitcom format, framing a dysfunctional male friendship and their interactions with their drug dealer. Driving to Monty (Richard Griffiths)’s house in a beat down Jaguar with a light torn off, navigating the motorways at night with one working window wiper, I can barely park his car vertically. McGann notes on the commentary on the Anchor Bay DVD he had only known how to drive for 3 weeks; Robinson often doubled for him, reality meeting fiction.
Like with Trainspotting (1996), the viewer finds joy in protagonists navigating their addictions. In the opening, as I lights a kettle on an open flame, we sense paranoia and anxiety in insomniac bloodshot eyes. Withnail and I drink in the middle of the day, buying multiple rounds at once.
Grant, a teetotaller, method acted, throwing up violently on an expensive rug. Robinson writes drunk, taking a couple of glasses of wine before injecting his dialogue with serious energy. Withnail has become one of cinema’s most iconic drunks, drinking lighter fluid in pursuit of more alcohol. Driving down the motorway, shot on the M25 two days before it opened, I awakens in a daze, finding Withnail driving between lanes. In desperation, evading the breathalyser by switching his piss with a child’s “uncontaminated urine”, he pretends not to be drunk, telling the officers he’s “only had a few ales”. Danny, in his radically cool sunglasses, seeks ways to distribute merchandise, stuffing shoe soles and plastic babies. Withnail and I arrive home to find Danny and Presuming Ed (Eddie Tagoe) as squatters, smoking the most powerful weed in the western hemisphere.
As a thespian, Withnail imagines himself the greatest actor who ever lived. In the Penrith cottage, he brandishes sword and cigarette, wanting to be the best Hamlet, one of Robinson’s favourite plays. Atop the mountain, he yells out to the town below him, “I’m gonna be a star!”, an image Robinson attempted to recreate with Grant in the final scene of How to Get Ahead in Advertising (1989). Yet Withnail is selective, refusing to shadow a part in The Seagull (1896), speaking to his agent from a telephone booth with frustration. Uncle Monty asks I if he’s published, keeping a constant diary of events; Robinson wrote the unpublished novel that became Withnail back in 1969. I’s worldview is a literary one, expecting villagers to be drinking cider in the garden like in a H.E. Bates novel, unable to escape books, carrying everything from Journey’s End (1928) to David Copperfield (1850) and Against Nature (1884).
Adopting a performance identity, Grant and McGann touch upon their experience as actors, playing actors, played by characters based on real people who were indeed actors. Withnail and I adopt a dishevelled Camden identity that doesn’t quite fit them; Withnail walks around the mountains, seeking a pseudonym to escape into. In The Mother Black Cap, he creates an Irish accent and fictitious wife when arguing with a patron. Escaping to Penrith, they play roles as journalists as location scouts, unable to understand those around them. Withnail receives a free round, convincing the drunk elderly bartender he served in the forces. In one of the film’s most hilarious scenes, they drunkenly adopt the roles of multi-millionaire entrepreneurs, planning to install a jukebox amid pensioners during afternoon tea, as I scoffs down another scone.
Inspired by a real holiday Robinson went on with Michael Feast, the pastoral landscape becomes actively hostile against them. Withnail and I are fish out of water, yet they were out of water in London. Arriving at the house, I uses a lantern to find his way around. With no heating or food, they acquire logs and a chicken from a farmer, throttling and gutting it for themselves, often left with only a plate of vegetables as they try to find something for their “pot”. Away from their life of drugs, they try and find new ways of living, awoken in the morning by birdsong, putting on a cap and walking stick, using plastic bags as Wellingtons. Monty tries to show the delights of the country as they go on walks, yet I can’t begin to imagine romanticised pastoral life.
Receiving the lead part, I undergoes rites of passage, adopting a new hat and shorter haircut. Withnail is unable to escape squalor, caught between Danny and Presuming Ed as he chants. I avoids the entire culture, refusing a joint or swig of Withnail’s paper bag of wine. Unlike the original ending, where Withnail kills himself with his shotgun, this sequence is far more powerful. Departing in the rain at Regent’s Park, Withnail adopts “the Dane” wholeheartedly, rehearsing his soliloquy as the credits roll amid the wolves. Withnail’s future seems bleak; we know he’s going to die, whilst I has a future. Danny’s drug-blazing skull tattoo might as well be predicting his own demise.
Vivian MacKerrell, the inspiration behind Withnail, died in 1995. As Robinson reflects in the introduction to the 10th anniversary edition of the screenplay:
[I] can’t believe Vivian is dead. He got cancer of the throat and they tore his voice out. And the fellow I’d always thought of as being the biggest coward I’d ever met materialized into the bravest bastard I’d ever known.
In the final months of 1969, the film captures a world in upheaval. The soundtrack is littered with music: a King Curtis rendition of Procol Haram’s A Whiter Shade of Pale in the opening, While My Guitar Gently Weeps, and Jimi Hendrix’s Voodoo Child and All Along the Watchtower, the most expensive yet rewarding aspects of the film. As a wrecking ball demolishes a building to All Along the Watchtower, we see the shifting landscape, the city and country remapped in post-war degradation. Robinson places us at the end of what Danny dubs “the greatest decade in the history of mankind”, before the death of Hendrix and Morrison and a new music scene and counterculture.
Robinson also creates political critique, invoking carries classist undertones: Withnail acquired his tailored suit from Saville Row, whilst Monty only accepts Eton as a place of study. As Withnail and I drunkenly threaten a local teashop with corporatisation, he tackles the destructive effects of capitalism and market liberation in the 1980s. Even Danny touches anti-establishment feeling, comparing the effects of drugs to politics. I sits in a café reading a newspaper in paranoia; Robinson attempts to confront tabloid sensationalism, just as with the twisted marketing promises of How to Get Ahead in Advertising, and the televised images of war in his screenplay to The Killing Fields (1984). I stares closely at an article about Dawn Langley Simmons, a trans woman, whilst judging the woman eating an egg sandwich in front of him, as though she could be the same person; he looks over to the person next to him, reading a News of the World article on a “Nude Au Pair’s Secret Life”.
Perhaps the film’s most controversial element is Uncle Monty, played by Griffiths over a decade before Vernon Dursley as pure camp, acquiring a house of extravagance of paintings, busts, a furnished sofa, endless books and a tightly groomed moustache. His cottage is just as extravagant, with paintings of tsars and expensive bedposts. Monty speaks in double entendre, and gets in strops as his cat becomes a nuisance. Monty likes “firm young carrot[s]”, not petunias; he doesn’t like “touch[ing] meat until it’s cooked”. According to McGann on the commentary, Griffiths was concerned about this portrayal because of his gay friends.
Robinson tries to present the vulnerability of being a young actor, inspired by the abusive behaviour directed towards him by Franco Zeffirelli during Romeo and Juliet. Monty maintains his gaze on I, flirting constantly. Preparing luncheon, he hands him a woman’s apron, trying to bend over him. Monty is a rapist, refusing to accept rejection. He asks if I is a “sponge”, a line lifted directly from Zeffirelli. I repeatedly tells Monty he’s “terribly tired”, yet Monty enters his room in the middle of the night unannounced, blackmailing I. Monty adopts his queerness and abuse as costume, applying blue and red eye shadow to his face. He tries to convince I he’s homosexual; Withnail “need never know”, taking off his dressing gown in a sense of entitlement. Monty is self-aware of his abusiveness, saying he must have him “even if it must be burglary.”
What is so uncomfortable about Monty is not that he is a dated and offensive stereotype. It’s because it’s so familiar. Even within queer and safe spaces, abuse still goes on. Rape is a systemic issue, too often justified, defended through personal desire. Monty’s sexuality is complicated against a culture where it’s “society’s crime”, without support structures or open partners, recently decriminalised yet socially taboo. But Monty’s entitlement cannot excuse rape.
Withnail and I are thespians, carrying inherent queerness; I often plays to femininity, drying himself with a pink towel. Yet the film plays gay panic, within culturally internalised homophobia. In the urinals, I reads graffiti saying “fuck arses” amid the “Kilroy was here” carvings in the wall, running from the pub in fear of being raped as a patron calls him a “ponce”. At the cottage at night, they fear the sounds of a village poacher arriving, sharpening his knife; it turns out to be Monty, just as terrifying, wanting to leave the house as quickly as possible. Withnail and I become laced with homoerotic subtext, sharing a bad in fear in underwear, coats laid on the bed to give warmth, evoking a comic convention of Morecambe and Wise. In Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987), a similar scene is played, as Neal fears his hand is resting on a “pillow”.
Withnail and I must perform queerness to avert Monty’s advances, emphasising monogamy and faithfulness, grabbing Withnail by the waist as he takes him upstairs, creating a cover story. Monty treats them as a couple, holding their hands as he calls them “my boys!” Withnail crafts a yarn to Monty that I was a “toilet trader” on Tottenham Court Road. Yet I’s indignation is not at Monty for being a rapist, but at Withnail, for the mere suggestion he “tell him I love you”.
McGann would be cast as the Eighth Doctor, and there’s a sheer joy to what could have been as he interacts with the Shalka Doctor. I manifests enough Doctor-esque qualities it’s easy to see why McGann was cast: his pacifism, telling Withnail not to “point guns at people”, avoidance of drugs, humanity, introspection. Even Withnail and I’s wardrobes carry a Doctor-esque quality, from Withnail’s long coat and scarf to I’s leather jacket. Yet for all of its problematic invoking of queer stereotypes, Withnail & I remains a wonderful, instantly quotable experience, a cult film for all the right reasons.