In 1969, two substance-abusing, unemployed actors retreat to the countryside for a holiday that proves disastrous.
by Alex Godfrey
“Everything looks ill,” describes Bruce Robinson in his Withnail And I screenplay, of the Camden house based on his own squalid existence in the late 1960s. “The walls and furniture look ill. Daylight looks ill.” The screenplay is a brilliant read, because Robinson is a brilliant writer. You can smell the grime; you can taste the whiskey. And most impressively, Robinson heightened that even further for the film — his debut as director — in which the lives of its two struggling actors, one (‘I’) based on him, the other on his ex-drama-school friend Vivian MacKerrell (Withnail), are portrayed so vividly, so hilariously, and ultimately so profoundly, it feels as alive today as the reality of its story was to Robinson decades ago. It makes you want to have a shower.
What a shithole that Camden house is, a dilapidated ode to the end of an era. The film is set in 1969, but defiantly not romanticised — rather it’s a response, maybe, to how the swinging ’60s were portrayed elsewhere. Here are two broke actors, desperate to land some roles and getting nowhere fast, drowning their sorrows every minute of the day with alcohol and, at points, whatever else they can inhale or swallow. As the decade ends, it’s also a turning point for their respective hopes and dreams.
As Robinson has recalled, the period wasn’t so amusing back then — he’s called it “a disgusting time to be alive… the most depressing period of my life”, but as he wrote a novel about it in 1969/’70, he began to see the funny side. Years later he turned it into a script, bookending it with the Camden filth, but mainly setting it in the Lake District, where ‘I’ — named Marwood in the screenplay, but not on camera — and Withnail enjoy the miserable splendour of a grey trip to the Lake District, getting into scrapes with farmers, poachers, bulls, and Marwood’s horny Uncle Monty. The script landed with George Harrison, whose HandMade Films took it on, for all of £1.1million.
It’s a masterclass in casting. Robinson thought Paul McGann was perfect for his level-headed but anxiety-ridden on-screen avatar, although he did at one point offer the role to Kenneth Branagh, who turned it down, instead wanting to play Withnail. Robinson said no, later reasoning that Branagh didn’t have the requisite nobility and looked “like a partially cooked doughnut”. Richard E. Grant, though, seemed to have the alcoholic dandy Withnail coursing through him, even though he’d never had a drink in his life; famously, Robinson ordered him to do so in order to create a “chemical memory” for his performance, and Grant spent a night chugging vodka and champagne before turning up to rehearsals the next morning and spewing all over the floor. But alcoholic authenticity aside, Grant is electric as the furiously bitter, magnificently self-absorbed Withnail. Cast after a great audition, and because he seemed suitably Byronic, here Grant looks like an ill vampire, or perhaps a beautiful corpse (Robinson had demanded he lose weight to look appropriately emaciated). His Withnail is one of cinema’s most effective swearers, spitting out insults with derisive flair.
Much of the dialogue, though, doesn’t feature swearing at all. Lines (“I demand to have some booze!” / “We’ve gone on holiday by mistake!” / myriad more) have become catchphrases, but that’s not their fault. Robinson, partly because of Vivian MacKerrell’s influence, is a poetry hound, and his Withnail screenplay is absolutely poetic. We’re spoilt for choice with the likes of Marwood’s, “We are indeed drifting into the arena of the unwell,” or Monty’s (a sublime Richard Griffiths), “As a youth, I used to weep in butchers’ shops.” Watching these wonderful actors working with such gorgeous writing is one of the film’s great joys.
The production had got off to a rocky start, with Robinson locking horns with HandMade’s co-owner Denis O’Brien, who found the early dailies, as Robinson remembered, “about as funny as cancer”, wanting something camper and sillier. “You’re wrong,” Robinson told him. “It’s a comedy that doesn’t have any jokes or punchlines. It’s the desperation in the situation where the comedy will come from.” O’Brien demanded a different approach and asked for entire scenes to be cut; Robinson said, “Right, fuck you,” and quit. O’Brien relented, Robinson returned, and made exactly the film he wanted to make. You can feel the fire in every frame.
It is timeless, set in 1969, shot in 1986, and still resonating now. “It’s about trying to cope with generational change, which is universal, but it’s also a film about anger,” explained Robinson a few years ago. There’s so much emotional depth, and it cuts through all the tea-room chaos and the Camberwell carrots. Withnail’s thin smile as he says, “Well done,” to Marwood when the latter is given some good professional news is painful to behold. We feel for him, deeply, despite his awfulness, which makes the ending such a gut-punch, as Marwood leaves to get his career on track and Withnail is left alone in Regent’s Park, chugging from a bottle of red, performing — brilliantly — a Hamlet soliloquy to the wolves in the zoo. Suddenly we realise we’ve just watched the world’s saddest comedy. Withnail will die soon. He’ll haunt us.
Withnail And I didn’t set the box office on fire, but word-of-mouth over the next decade transformed it into the classic it remains. Steve Martin and Paul Rudd are mega-fans; Johnny Depp, obsessed with it, poured Withnail into Jack Sparrow; Colin Farrell, referring to Withnail and Marwood’s complex friendship, has called it his favourite cinematic love story.
It’s that relationship that makes the film endure, but the whole thing rings true — a deeply personal, scathing memoir of sorts from Robinson, who won those early battles to make something brimming with integrity, starring actors who gave it everything they had. It lives on, reasoned Robinson recently, because “it touches that moment in all our lives of magnificent anarchy.” What exquisite anarchy it is.
Empire UK, Summer 2023