These past few weeks, the films I’ve looked at have had a rather ‘cult’ feel to them. First there was Little Shop of Horrors which boasts the kind of camp cult features, A Fish Called Wanda provided us with irreverent cult comedy, and now there’s Withnail & I, which is… a lot more difficult to categorise.
It’s a comedy, but it’s a lot more obscure and hard to pin down. It’s slightly surreal, very difficult to follow at times, and its apparent lack of direction and driving plot are defining features of its underground popularity.
What little discernible plot there is follows the exploits of two out-of-work actors; Withnail (Richard E Grant) who exudes public school education, but is a terribly deranged drug and alcohol addict, and, well “I” (his full name is apparently Marwood, but it’s never mentioned in the film, he’s played by Paul McGann) the younger of the two, he’s the one with any hint of work on the horizon. Anyway, these two decide to leave the squalor of their tiny London flat for a week’s holiday in Withnail’s uncles’ cottage.
It’s pretty evident early on that the films driving force is its characters rather than plot, which can at best be described as ‘meandering’. It’s a vehicle for two interesting (yet not always likeable) characters to act inappropriately in many different situations. Often while smoking and shouting.
Indeed, the most memorable moments in the films are less about the story and more about the outrageous characters, who somehow manage to be over-the-top, yet strangely believable.
Our central narrator of the story, through whom we experience the film is Marwood (or “I” but that’s a hell of a lot harder to fit well into sentences without context) yet it’s arguably Withnail is the driving force of the film, always seeming to follow his will, as he has a lot more drunken confidence than the often meek Marwood.
Withnail is a the kind of character that you’d love to observe from a distance, yet would cross the road to avoid if he got too close, like a gorilla in a zoo, you’re more than happy to be in its company when it is contained behind a sturdy bit of glass, but would be so happy if it was climbing all over your wife.
He’s unkempt, aggressive (yet cowardly), extremely unsociable and a terrible influence. He constantly has dark circles around his eyes, belying his abusive relationship with drugs, forgoing sleep for days on end and replacing it with wine and whatever else he can get his hands on, we don’t need to be shown this to know it, it’s merely mentioned fleetingly, and we’re left to fill in the rest by just observing the character.
This is perhaps the best thing about the film for me, presenting the characters looks and surroundings as extensions of their personality. We know more about the characters than we are told by just looking at their surroundings in the first few scenes; a hovel in such a state of decrepitude that Marwood has to drink coffee from a saucer, as there are rats living in the washing up. This impression we’re giving of where the characters live, as well as looking at how they’re dressed, sets the scene perfectly for the films main characters, whose lives almost perfectly reflect the state of their flat.
It isn’t just the two titular characters who are played up to such a point of ridiculousness that they ultimately become believable. Firstly, there’s Danny (Ralph Brown) the pairs drug dealer, who is a combination of all the 60’s stereotypes poured into one man, and Uncle Monty (played by the late Richard Griffiths) a pompous, painfully obvious closed elderly homosexual whose cottage the two spend the bulk of the film trashing.
There should be no need to note how good the acting is, but it really is something well worthy of praise. Long-time readers will recall my fondness for Richard E Grant, a devastatingly underrated actor, who seems especially talented when playing morally-questionable alcoholics (although, as a funny side fact, the actor himself is allergic to alcohol) and as much, simply steals the show here. The intensity of his deranged rants are a wonder to behold, and his straight-faced and serious delivery is what really seals the deal.
Paul McGann and Richard Griffiths also deliver great performances, again, these are two actors who were criminally underutilised in their prime (despite their respective connections to big franchises) McGann is a bright-eyed youthful actor led astray by the preposterous Withnail, and has the closest thing the story has to a character arc in the whole film.
My main issues with the film, however, revolve around its lack of clarity. Now, I’m not the type that needs every plot point explaining to me, but I do expect at least some plot, and what Withnail & I is isn’t so much a story as a winding anecdote, as if an elderly Marwood is reminiscing in the future, it’s not particularly an outstanding string of events, in fact, I have no doubt that in context, it’s probably a week the characters would hastily forget, given their drug and alcohol intake.
Whether or not you’ll like this film depends on how much you think a film can be carried by just characters, interesting characters, don’t get me wrong; albeit a small cast of characters blundering through the vents of a few days. It has enough memorable lines and scenes peppered in at stages of the film that give it a bit more life, and I enjoyed watching some of their escapades, but at times I also felt that the film was too impenetrable to invest in.
I suppose some might say that it is a film that maybe you’re not supposed to be invested in, or that what I’m pointing out as flaws are actually points in its favour in some circles; but films must also be judged as entertainment, and if you’re making entertainment more for your own pleasure than the audiences then you’re in trouble.
That’s not to say that Withnail & I isn’t entertaining, because it is when the dialogue starts to flow, or their thrown into a new situation, but there’s too much downtime with nothing happening, and little focus on plot that might put casual viewers off. You might see it as a surreal classic, or a confusing mess; and I’m not quite sure where I end up. I think I saw enough that I liked to be able to recommend, but I certainly wouldn’t recommend it for viewers who just fancy a light chuckle to pass the time. Approach with caution and you may end up liking it.