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Tuesday, 13 December 2016

Retro Review: Withnail & I (1987)

Withnail & I
Cast: Richard E. Grant, Paul McGann, Richard Griffiths 
Genre: Black Comedy
Worldwide Lifetime Gross: over $1.5 million 

Plot: Two out of work actors, Marwood and his alcoholic acerbic friend, Withnail - spend their days drifting between their squalid flat, the unemployment office and the pub. When they take a holiday 'by mistake' at the country house of Withnail's flamboyantly gay uncle, Monty, they encounter the unpleasant side of the English countryside: tedium, terrifying locals and torrential rain 

'British Black Tragi-Comedy With Star Turn By Richard E. Grant' 

Withnail and I is not usually a film I'd show an interest in, but like so many other films that have received an appraisal, I had to take a look at this one and see what all the interest is about. Loosely based on the book, the film depicts the life of two struggling actors, who share a dingy and rancid-looking flat (or apartment as it's known in America) as they both attempt to find work, alcohol and cigarettes. A guy going by the name of Withnail and his flatmate, Marwood enjoy consuming booze, with Withnail being the heavier drinker of the two. As dissatisfied as they are with their lives in Camden, North London and drinking large quantities of booze, they head off to the countryside to escape from their inner city woes, and as they do, they find that as different as life is out there in the country in some aspects, it turns out it is also not quite what they'd envisaged it to be; they have a bit of a run-in with the locals and causing a fuss, as well as seeing whether or not things will look brighter for Withnail & Marwood. 

Swaziland-born Brit Richard E. Grant is one of those actors that I feel that as sublime a performer he is, I'm surprised he never went on to attain more prominent onscreen roles in film. He was enjoyable in Pret-A-Porter as a camp designer and wonderful as widower Jack in romantic dramedy, Jack & Sarah. In a great film, Grant exerts that natural ability, effervescent charm and presence that lights up the screen and gets viewers watching. His character, Withnail is a cursing, self-absorbed & at times ill-tempered and frustrated man, where some of his uttered lines often draw parallels to William Shakespeare. And yet it is even more extraordinary that in real-life Richard is a tee totaller and who doesn't drink alcohol and smoke. Paul McGann is equally as good as Marwood, whose youthful looks attract the unwanted attention of Withnail's homosexual uncle, played by the late Richard Griffiths: an elderly man who has a fetish for younger men. Ralph Brown plays himself in the same role as the one in Wayne's World 2.

Films such as Notting Hill, Four Weddings and a Funeral and Love Actually- all directed by Richard Curtis- portray that type of image of Britain, or be it the UK that is almost superficial and bordering on Hollywood-ish. Yet in the likes of Withnail & I, this is seminal Britain at arguably it's most realistic, darker, blunt and straight-forward harkening way back in the 1980s. Plus, it is most distinctively British, moreso than Richard Curtis's rom-com offerings. 

This so-called semi-autobiographical film has been labelled 'Fear and Loathing In The Countryside', as it draws similarities to Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas, only it is more acerbic in tone & realistic wherein the film's paranoia and narcissism are lessened by the subtle humour. The performances give weight to the script with Grant dominating the screentime, & thus the characters through those turns by Richard E. Grant and Paul McGann, are what makes it watchable. Many of those characters are also loosely based on director, Bruce Robinson's own experience as a struggling actor, back in the 1960s. Withnail and I needs to be seen several times, in order to understand how surreal this film is. 

Final Verdict:

Withnail & I captures the spirit and essence of 1960s London, an era of which I wasn't born in, with a distinctiveness and realism that is almost dark, though not too dark, which is backed up with impressive performances in this so-called tragi-comedy. Most notably that of Richard E. Grant, as the pretentious drunk, I mean droll - yet at times lovable, Withnail. & though whilst his performance here pretty much helped spearheaded his career, I also couldn't help but wonder that he deserved more movies that would have made the most out of his talents. 

Rightly labelled as a cult comedy, it is a cult film for a reason being it is a bit of a lesser known offering, but it is also one that needs to be seen numerous times. 

As stripped down, back-to-basics as this gets for a film, not least a British one, Withnail & I makes up for it with real honesty, charm in places, as well as an exceedingly good turn by Paul McGann and a mighty impressive one by Richard E. Grant. 


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