Withnail and I is one of those movies in which the plot isn’t especially important. It’s all about the characters, the atmosphere, and the memorable lines. Above all, it’s a movie about drunkenness, set in Britain in the late 1960s, and combining a rather sad plot with a surprising amount of laughs. The film arrived in the U.S. in June of 1987, 35 years ago.
Written and directed by The Killing Fields screenwriter Bruce Robinson, who was said to have it based it to some degree on his own experiences, Withnail and I featured the first-ever big-screen performance from the great character actor Richard E. Grant.
Grant — who, ironically, is a nondrinker in real life — played Withnail, while Paul McGann was Marwood, also known as “I.” The two are a pair of perpetually drunken louts who live together in London, half-heartedly pursuing acting careers while living in relative squalor and lamenting their circumstances.
The movie gets going when they borrow the cottage in the country belonging to Withnail’s gay uncle Monty (Richard Griffiths), which leads to a misunderstanding about the romantic intentions of the men, leading to a surprising conclusion:
Withnail and I is full of memorable one-liners, like “I’ve been called a ponce,” “Then the fucker will rue the day,” “Monty, you terrible [c-word],” and Monty’s speech about carrots. And, of course, “I have just narrowly avoided having a buggering, and have come in here with the express intention of wishing one upon you.”
Even though George Harrison, of all people, was a producer through his company HandMade Films, Withnail and I was never much of a box office hit. But its legend has grown over time; I probably didn’t see it for the first time until about five years ago.
Richard E. Grant has continued to work regularly in the more than three decades since, appearing in such films as The Player, Gosford Park, and Jackie. In recent years, he’s had a pair of standout, if little-seen turns, as an aging drag queen in Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, and as the mysterious master of the central “game” on the TV series Dispatches From Elsewhere.
McGann, who also made his movie debut in Withnail and I, has had fewer credits, most of them in the U.K., and he played the eighth doctor on Doctor Who. As for Bruce Robinson, he only directed three more movies- 1989’s How to Get Ahead in Advertising, 1992’s Jennifer 8, and 2011’s The Rum Diary, the movie where Johnny Depp played a young Hunter S. Thompson. The director has also become an author.
Withnail and I is now streaming on HBO Max, and I highly recommend it to who hasn’t had the pleasure, drunk or sober.
CULTURE (counter, pop, and otherwise) and the people who shape it.