Withnail and I is a poignant comedy about the adventures of two out of work actors. Beautifully acted by Richard E Grant and Paul McGann, supported by a cast of quirky, comical characters and with witty writing and clever direction from Bruce Robinson this is a cult classic.
Set in London during the sixties the two friends spend most of their time trying to get wasted. They live in a stinky, possibly rat-infested flat and are both hopelessly skint and desperate for work. Grant plays the older of the pair, Withnail, a fantastically whiny hedonist who likes nothing more than a good drink and the sound of his own voice. McGann plays the I of the title, a slightly more sensible protege of Withnail and he also narrates the film.
The main characters have a strange friendship which seems based on their shared depression at not being able to find work. They determinedly drown their sorrows with whatever they can get their hands on from booze to pills to lighter fluid. This leads to serious bouts of paranoia and panic expertly portrayed by McGann and Grant. Eventually the squalid flat becomes too much to bear and they set out for a holiday in the country. This necessitates a visit to Uncle Monty (Richard Griffiths) to ask for permission to use his country cottage. Unfortunately for Withnail´s companion Uncle Monty is a complete queen and pursues him vigorously.
This is a low budget film with little in the way of sex or violence. Its continued cult success is based on the script which is truly memorable and extremely well written and the knockout acting performances. The direction is also very good as Bruce Robinson brings his semi-autobiographical tale to life. The film was written in the 70´s about Robinson´s college days in the 60´s but it wasn´t till he won an Oscar nomination for penning The Killing Fields that Robinson was able to get the film made, and so it wasn´t released until 1986.
The clash of cultures as the two city boys collide with the backward and less than friendly locals in the countryside is hilarious. To make matters worse Uncle Monty re-appears and soon the pair flee back to London to find a dodgy dealer they know and one of his mates squatting in their flat. The peripheral characters are unforgettable and they paint a clear picture of the bizarrely mixed lives our heroes are leading. As the film progresses it becomes clear that Withnail is on a downward spiral which he has no intention of escaping, while there is still hope for his young friend. This realisation leads us to an emotional and spine tingling end speech from Withnail.
Withnail and I has a ring of truth about it which most films lack. The situations that crop up are realistic, the characters feel like people you know or may have met and the British backdrop is comfortably familiar. The comedy comes from the precise balance of characters and situations; the script does not rely on gags or cheap laughs. The soundtrack also deserves a mention as it includes Hendrix, The Beatles and a great version of A Whiter Shade of Pale.
Not everyone will connect with this movie but those that do will really get it. This is no lightweight comedy but rather a hilarious character study full of cultural references which retains a bittersweet undertow. Withnail and I is sublimely unique, fantastically hilarious and ultimately deeply moving.