I recently re-watched Bruce Robinson’s 1987 film “Withnail and I.” It is one of a few movies that have made the list of films I could watch on a loop, which is a credit to both the excellent writing and the structured direction. It’s a movie that you can get more out of every time you watch it. Even if you can recite the lines and know the plot by heart you’ll not hesitate to watch it again. But what exactly creates this effect in a seemingly average British comedy?
The story tracks the lives of two out of work actors, Withnail and “I.” (I’s name is Marwood, but this is never spoken in dialogue or cited in the credits.) They live together, drink together, get high together and eventually go on a “holiday by mistake” together. But, as a credit to the ultimate structure of the film, they end up alone. The plot itself is simple: two friends are tired of being jobless in the city, so they get Withnail’s uncle Monty to lend them a cottage in the country for a few days. This turns out to be less than picturesque as they have to deal with rain, bulls and less than friendly neighbors. The holiday ends with Marwood finally getting an audition and going back to the city with Withnail but leaving again without him.
This set-up is quintessentially comedic (two pals, an eventful vacation, a rouge Uncle, alcohol), but though there are definite laugh out loud moments, I hesitate at the classification of comedy. It is in every sense tragic, as each character slips in and out of bad habits and self-pity to celebration and seeming contentedness, and the jokes don’t appear as jokes at all. We laugh because it’s life and the jokes are something that we would believe. They aren’t set up, they aren’t cliché; they are nuanced and situation-based. Though the film is packed with quotable lines and laughable moments, the end can bring you to tears. It is both light and dark at the same time, which is one reason that the film is so genius.
The writing and storytelling itself is so clever that it appears almost invisible. Marwood is a writer of journals, as we learn by seeing him write and by him talking to Uncle Monty about it, and it is he who narrates the story. But there isn’t much voiceover narration; just enough so that when necessary, we get inside Marwood’s head, but not too much that we drown in it. The story on many levels speaks for itself; we know from one look how Withnail feels about Marwood’s audition or how Marwood feels about Uncle Monty from his iconic, strained smile. Even so, the title and the narration set up a connection with the audience, with the “I,” that is vital to the sentiment of the film. It is the story of Withnail told through the “I” but it is also told through you, the audience, put into the story and the situation.
The story structure leaves the metaphor up to interpretation; it is you who decides who in your life is Danny and who is Withnail, who is Uncle Monty and where is that cottage in the country.
The tragedy of the film lies buried in its humor, and we find in the end that it’s not so buried at all. We are faced with two boys “drifting in the arena of the unwell” and come out with two men already unwell, separate and adult. The style of filming is again almost invisible in its nuances, but who can forget the end shot as Withnail emotionally recites a soliloquy in the pouring rain to no one as a wet, white dog stands on the other side of a wrought iron fence? We ourselves are forced to watch from the other side of the fence as he ambles away, umbrella high, booze swinging in his hand. He has become a part of another place on the other side of the fence and it is clear that we are not going to see him again; we as the audience, and we as the “I,” as Marwood.
Maybe the film is so good because it’s so funny, maybe because “GET IN THE BACK OF THE VAN,” maybe because at the end Marwood cuts his hair which is exactly what Danny said not to do at the beginning because it makes you uptight and disconnects you from the cosmos, maybe because everything is relatable while at the same time nothing is, maybe because you can get really wasted trying to keep up with Withnail. But whether this is a movie about growing up or getting drunk, it is a movie worth watching, and worth watching again and again. So whatever your reason, watch this movie. Do it. Right now. It’s in the library. And on Netflix. “Throw yourself in the road, darling! You haven’t got a chance!”