Eminently quotable, and full of both farcical and touching moments, Withnail & I fully deserves its cult status amongst British films.
There are so many elements that go into making this a huge success, with the talented cast, the poetical and hilarious script and the locations as a starting point. What other film gives you so many eloquent ways to ask for alcohol? ‘We want the finest wines known to humanity. We want them here, and we want them now!’ ‘I must have some booze. I demand to have some booze!’
It’s London, in 1969. Withnail (Richard E. Grant in his first movie role) and the eponymous ‘I’ (Paul McGann) are resting (i.e. unemployed and with a distinct lack of money) actors who habit an almost uninhabitable flat in Camden, London. It’s disgusting (the scene where they find ‘matter’ in the kitchen sink will make anybody who has any sort of pride in their housework skills shudder) and cold – the boys spend their days collecting their benefits, and using the money to either feed the meter or go to a warm pub. I’s real name is Marwood, which I shall be using throughout, as otherwise it makes my grammar look distinctly shoddy.
Withnail constantly seethes with resentment at the injustices he perceives around him, feeling himself to be overlooked by those around him that ‘have’; all the while ignoring that he himself comes from a far more advantageous background than he admits (a fact that becomes more apparent when we meet his infamous uncle). He is definitely the leader in the pair’s relationship, with Marwood allowing Withnail to make decisions, although this could be seen to be equally because of Withnail’s dominant and fairly arrogant personality as well as Marwood’s need to avoid confrontation.
At the beginning of the film we close in on Marwood in the flat. It’s dark, filthy and he’s smoking. After asking Withnail through his bedroom door whether he wants a cup of tea (he declines) Marwood leaves, and heads to a local greasy spoon. Whilst he’s there he reads his paper and we hear his internal monologue sounding increasingly desolate about life.
When he gets back to the flat Withnail is in full flow, and doesn’t deviate from his rant at a newspaper report regarding drugs cheat ‘Geoff Woade’ to listen to Marwood’s desperate pleas for help. After a feeble attempt at tackling the living organisms in the sink they head to the park, where we discover that Marwood has been for an audition and is waiting to hear the result. Withnail waxes lyrical about the unfairness of not having any auditions himself. Marwood suggests they go to the countryside to ‘rejuvenate’.
The next scene contains possibly the most memorable sight of the entire film: Withnail wearing only underpants and an overcoat, smeared in Deep Heat in a futile attempt to keep warm. Marwood again brings up the idea of going away, suggesting that Withnail asks his father for some money to help them achieve this. Withnail doesn’t acknowledge this at the time but later on in the pub he makes a remark implying that his father wouldn’t give him any money even if he did ask. We later discover that his family disapproves of him being ‘on the stage’, a comment that prompts Marwood’s delight in pointing out that he rarely is.
What does transpire, after a slightly confused conversation, is that Withnail has an Uncle Monty who owns a house in the country. A phone call is made, and a meeting with Monty is arranged. Before the boys set out for this, however, we have our first encounter with Danny back at the flat – he’s a memorable character whose most famous scene will come later. Onward to Monty’s.
Montague ‘Uncle Monty’ Withnail (the late Richard Griffiths) is a wonderful individual. Larger than life, and also a bit of an actor in his younger days, he speaks theatrically and laments the passing of a what we imagine is a somewhat rose-tinted romantic time in his past. With a stay in the country house secured, the boys hit the road in Marwood’s dilapidated Jaguar. Withnail is also worse for wear, and explains to Marwood about a contraption that Danny has invented and swears by for evading drink driving convictions. Remember that, you’ll need it later.
Eventually, in the dark, they reach the cottage. It’s in the middle of nowhere, and it isn’t the luxurious retreat they were expecting. It’s cold and meagrely furnished, and Withnail makes a futile attempt in the howling gale outside to find firewood to stoke the fire. In desperation he breaks, and then burns a wooden chair. He’s convinced that coming to stay here was an error and, with the information we have so far, we’re inclined to agree.
The next morning, however, we see a more positive side to their temporary living arrangement. As Marwood ventures outside we are a treated to a sensational view across the valley. After coming across a not-so-friendly local at the farmhouse, he is told that her son the farmer might be able to help him procure some oil and wood. The man later trundles his tractor past the cottage, and the boys rush out to apprehend him, with Withnail telling him that they’ve ‘come on holiday by mistake!’ They discover that Uncle Monty has stayed at the cottage in the past, under an exotically different name, and with his ‘son’. Hmmm.
The farmer (complete with injured leg due to his ‘randy bull’) tells them that he can bring some wood, and a chicken up later, which he duly does. The boys have dug up and peeled potatoes in mouth-watering anticipation, although the chicken is not quite as oven-ready as they were expecting. It’s still alive. We don’t see the ensuing grisly scene, but soon the chicken is dead, mostly plucked and is straddling a brick in the oven. Yes, really.
On their trip to the nearby village Withnail makes a phone call to his agent. We don’t hear their side of the conversation but he is irate, and berates them for not putting him up for any jobs in the last three months. He is offered an understudy role, but lets them know in no uncertain terms what he thinks of that. The boys walk back, but soon encounter the aforementioned randy bull when they forget to close a gate. Withnail shows his cowardly nature as he leaves Marwood to fend for himself. Thankfully a loud roar and a run towards the bovine creature force it to turn away, and the gate is closed behind it. Marwood is shaken. Withnail cheerfully suggests they go to the pub.
The Crow and Crown is an eccentric country inn. After duping the barman into serving them free drinks, both boys are soon legless. They meet Jake, the local poacher and end up antagonising him so much that once back at the college Withnail becomes terrified that he is coming to get them with his gun. They decide to leave in the morning, but first they must get through the night. Withnail wants to do this in the same bed for safety. Marwood is not keen.
A noise is heard downstairs in the early hours; was Withnail’s panic justified? Well, no actually, but it is funny. It’s Monty, arriving unannounced and later than planned, after a puncture during his journey. The relief of Withnail & I is palpable.
In the morning the boys awake to find the cottage transformed. Airy, warm and with the promise of a decent meal, Withnail is immediately comforted. Marwood is slightly uncomfortable at Monty’s propensity to find reasons to close in on him. Monty later takes them into the local town on the premise of buying them some wellingtons, but as soon as he leaves them to their own devices they take the money straight into the nearest pub. As the last order we hear Withnail give to the barman is ‘A pair of quadruple whiskies and another pair of pints please’ we know it’s not going to end well. The genteel customers of the Penryth tea rooms are about to have an unpleasant experience.
Withnail and Marwood are extremely inebriated. They want cake. The proprietor of the establishment wants them to leave. The police are mentioned. Withnail gets drunkenly theatrical and uses the ‘We want the finest wines known to humanity’ line before threatening to buy the café and then knock it down. The residents of Penryth are saved by the return of Monty in his Rolls outside. The pair stagger out. Wonderful.
Back at the cottage Monty is cross with the boys for their behaviour, blaming Marwood for leading his nephew astray. Marwood is understandably put out by this, but is probably relieved with his frostiness as it means Monty is not for the moment trying anything inappropriate with him. This does not last long however, and on the way back from an evening walk Marwood makes it clear to Withnail that he will be having the bedroom with the lock. When they near the cottage they see Jake the Poacher standing by the door. They wait, only approaching once he’s gone. He has left a dead hare tied to the door, and his accompanying note bears the legend ‘Here hare here.’
After a game of cards, and a great deal more alcohol, Withnail is definitely ready for bed. Aware that the withdrawal of his friend from the room would leave Monty and him alone, Marwood faux-cheerfully hustles him upstairs, saying a firm goodnight to Monty. This doesn’t deter Monty however, and despite Marwood barricading his door with a chair, Monty forcibly enters his room during the night. There’s no subtlety with Monty’s approach this time, and he goes on to explain that Withnail has ‘told him everything.’ Marwood suddenly realises that Withnail has set him up by telling Monty that he is gay (or as Monty puts it rather less attractively, ‘a toilet trader’) and giving him false hope. Marwood also realises that it is by lying about Marwood’s availability that Withnail secured the use of the cottage, and it is also why Monty appeared there with no pre-warning. Marwood thinks quickly, telling Monty that yes he is gay, but he’s in a relationship with Withnail, and couldn’t possibly cheat on him. Amorous Monty may be, but he is also honourable, and backs down gracefully.
There’s nothing graceful about Marwood’s awakening and berating of Withnail a few minutes later.
When the boys awaken the next day they find Monty gone, leaving only a heart-wrenching note by way of an apology. A telegram then arrives for Marwood from his agent, evidently bearing positive news regarding his audition. He insists they leave for London at once. Marwood drives through the onslaught of rain, unable to see the road because of a broken windscreen wiper. He can only drive like this for so long, and soon stops for a nap. When he awakens the car is moving extremely fast, and very erratically. A drunken Withnail is at the wheel and isn’t stopping for anybody, until a police van pulls them over. Withnail is confident that Danny’s contraption (remember that?) will save him but all it actually does is make him spray a police station with urine. Lovely.
Back at the flat the pair are momentarily confused by the addition of a large black man to their bathtub, but this is explained by the occupier of Marwood’s bed; the garrulous Danny has taken residence with his friend Presuming Ed. The next scene features the notorious Camberwell Carrot, a joint rolled using no fewer than twelve cigarette papers, with its name explained by Danny as ‘I invented it in Camberwell, and it’s shaped like a carrot.’ Can’t fault his logic there.
Marwood makes a phone call, returning to the dope-filled room to say that he didn’t get the part he auditioned for; instead they offered him the lead.
It’s another day. Marwood is packed, and ready to leave the flat. Withnail tries to delay his departure, and when he realises that his soon-to-be employed friend is set on going, offers to walk to the train station with him. He brings a bottle of wine, purloined from Monty’s cellar but Marwood refuses a drink. It’s raining heavily. The park passes by the zoo, and the pair stop by the wolves’ enclosure. Marwood tells Withnail not to come any further, and that he will miss him. Withnail replies in kind and Marwood exits.
Withnail then delivers a perfect and beautifully executed speech from Hamlet to the wolves. They give no reaction but we can see what an exquisite actor he actually is. He walks away and the film ends.
Adapted from Bruce Robinson’s unpublished novel (which was based on real characters and situations from his own life) Withnail & I was released in 1986 and has gone on to regularly feature on ‘great British film’ lists. It also features a killer soundtrack, including artists such as Jimi Hendrix, King Curtis and The Beatles, as well as many tracks written specifically for the film.
Right, off to the pub. I demand to have some booze!