14 Apr 2011

Withnail and I - Bruce Robinson - Film

Everyone who has seen it adores this film, inlcuding myself.  It's like a long poetic conversation with a really good film around it, the script is excellent and everything is just so English!  It has small but vibrant drops of prim and dry English culture running right the way through it from start to finish, from the tatty furniture to the farm animals, and from the heavy drinking to the elegant eccentricity of the characters.



The film follows two out of work actors (or 'thespians' might be a better word, the use of the English language in this film is wonderful and is why I like it so much) living in London in 1969.  They decide to go on holiday to Cumbria in order to clear their heads and have a break from the relentless debauchery in Camden Town.  Withnail (played by Richard E. Grant) provides a constant stream of bitterly sarcastic repulsion at the world around him, delivered in some of the best sentences I've ever heard.  A personal favourite is 'I'm sitting down to enjoy my holiday', but we'll stop that now, if I start quoting this film too much I won't be able to stop!

Paul McGann's character (Marwood, aka 'I', and rumoured to have a first name of Peter - which isn't true) appears to be suffering from intense social paranoia (or maybe it's just all the drugs he's been taking, courtesy of Danny), and also speaks in brilliant, bitter poetry - 'Even a stopped clock tells the right time twice a day, and for once I'm inclined to believe Withnail is right. We are indeed drifting into the arena of the unwell'.  This is said about the state of their health and their horrid flat, which looks to be in a worse state than a student abode, or an actual squat.  Although it does look as though it could be very nice indeed if they gave it a good clean, I love the brightly coloured door in the bathroom.


The two friends drive up to a hole of a cottage and begin to adapt to life in the country.  They are then surprised by Withnail's Uncle Monty (who owns the cottage and has lent it to them free of charge) who, unfortunately for Marwood, has a bit of a thing for younger men.  They are obliged to spend a couple of days with him, but not obliged to spend the money he gives them for wellies on wellies.

Their time in the country is highly entertaining, seeing the pair cook chicken, burn furniture, make more than a few enemies and narrowly escape the advances of a bull and Uncle Monty.


Now for a bit about Danny.  I saw Wayne's World 2 before I saw this film, anyone remember the old roadie Del Preston?  It is Ralph Brown, resurrecting his character Danny from Withnail & I.  I often get his lines from both films mixed up, for some reason the line 'I had to beat him to death with his own shoe' sounds to me like it should be from Withnail & I, and 'I was gonna cook onions' sounds like a Wayne's World quote.  Danny is, in the words of Marwood, 'the purveyor of rare herbs and prescribed chemicals'.  He's a drug dealer, but it sounds so much more quaint when you say it like Marwood.


My favourite quote from Danny is at the end of his first appearance in which he casually asks 'Have either of you got shoes?'.  There is also the Camberwell Carrot, named so because 'I made it in Camberwell, and it looks like a carrot.


It is said that Robinson based Withnail on an old friend of his named Vivian Mackerall, and the name came from a local man Robinson knew growing up who used to spell his name incorrectly - it was in fact Withnall.  Robinson has directed another film that is due out this year in the USA.  It is called The Rum Diary, is based on a Hunter S Thompson novel (author of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, which I have yet to read as I posted it to my friend who is currently in New Zealand, I have seen the film though and love it) and stars Johnny Depp as the lead.  Sounds great to me!  Also, interestingly, the artwork used to promote this film was by Ralph Steadman, the same chap who illustrated for Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.  A film of Robinson's I am particularly interested to see is The Killing Fields, which is about the Cambodian civil war.  If Withnail & I is anything to go by I suspect all of his films are worth watching.

Withnail & I has some very interesting trivia, I particularly like the fact that Grant's spontaneous laughter in the tea room scene was due to some noisy dogs on the set and not at all in the script, and that at the beginning of their journey to Penrith Mcgann stalls the car accidently.  And did you know that McGann was actually sacked and rehired during the filming?  Little genuine moments like these, and real occurences in the process of making the story, make for a truly great film.  This is because real events and real behaviour are an entertaining and often fascinating step up from acting - hence why a 'good actor' is considered one who goes the extra mile to make, or has a talent for making their character appear that bit more real.   The ending is quite harrowing, but not as dismal as the ending of the book (don't follow the link if you'd rather not know), which sounds very upsetting.

I think the reason this film has such a cult following is that it's simply a great story, and its focus is so small.  I think films with a small focus work brilliantly.  It's very simple, very funny, and frightfully well spoken.  You'd be awfully foolish to omit a viewing.