Classic Intel: Withnail & I - DVD Review

'an exercise in humorous depravity and aesthetic excess'

An exercise in humorous depravity and aesthetic excess, Withnail & I reached the heights of fifteenth in Time Out's list of the 100 Best British Films. Led by writer/director Bruce Robinson's lilting script and populated by a bevy of great supporting turns, the film works ostensibly because of the standout performances from Richard E. Grant and Paul McGann in the leads.

Withnail (Grant), an out of work actor with un-righteous indignation at everything and everyone that crosses his path, shares a flat with I (McGann), a fellow actor suffering from anxiety attacks, a decaying home and the indefatigable binging sessions Withnail leads. Alternatively drunk, tripping on speed or so wrapped up in their own world that they can't see beyond it, the duo are a microcosm of 1960s disenfranchisement. More than this: they're two wonderful characters who, like the rest of the cast, successfully tread the line between distracting archetype and realist fantasy.

What they also do is personify the dividing line between Northern and Southern England, mainly portrayed in the excellent middle third, during which the duo famously go on holiday 'by mistake'. Trapped in a land of Northerners where they're desperate to convince people they're 'really not from London' and forced to survive the fact that every other person seems to keep eels down their trousers, Withnail & I are joined by Uncle Monty (Richard Griffiths) in a segment which sees the film take on more obvious comic tones.

For all its comedic elements, the classics are never far away. Withnail's structure is purely a three act play for the stage. We start in the flat, move to the cottage and return (albeit briefly) to the flat, now populated by Danny (an unrecognisable Ralph Brown) and Presuming Ed (Eddie Tagoe). The character's personas - properly enunciating actors with a taste for the high life - fit the faux-classic feel of what is basically a comedy with upwardly mobile pretensions.

That Robinson changed the end of his own unpublished novel (upon which this is based) is fair enough and ultimately inconsequential. The conclusions to each character's story are obvious from the start and the decreasing circle of success to both Withnail's plans and his ability to consume alcohol is hint enough that his days of excess and burning bright are coming to an end. I's story by comparison could represent that of any of us. Struggling through iniquity on a holiday designed to ensure he can 'recover', his fate is eventually more down to luck and survival skills than any pre-planned focus on his future. Robinson, meanwhile, who will return to directing this year with the Hunter S. Thompson adaptation The Rum Diaries, cannot have imagined either the success of the film or the slightly barren future he would experience after it, although a return to the screen through the words and subject matter of a drug-addled quasi-aesthete seems somehow fitting.

Look further...

'Withnail, I found, to be an obnoxious asshole, but the kind that you can't help but gravitate towards' - Four Of Them


  1. And don't forget the brilliant soundtrack.

  2. Yes, good shout. Was reading on IMDb trivia that this was the film that prompted Hendrick's estate to take back ownership of his material, so scared were they that he was becoming too directly associated with 'drug culture'.