Withnail and I: A Holiday by Mistake

Regular readers of my articles about film will undoubtedly notice a pattern and a choice that I tend to make very often, and that is picking a line from the film I’m writing about that I think summarizes the entirety of the picture and the feeling it injects into its viewers. Not a bad way to approach a film, in my opinion, and it allows one to focus on both writing and delivery, with the rest naturally following. When it comes to Withnail and I, the incredible British cult classic which I will try to say a few words that I hope will do it a fraction of the justice it absolutely deserves, picking one line from it is a most challenging task, because not only is it one of the most quotable cult films of all time, but every great line from it is better and more insightful and shrewd than the last, with all of them insinuating and comically exploring the major themes of the film that vary from career status and addiction to heavier, more existential dreads and fears. I will however settle on the beautiful “Even a stopped clock tells the right time twice a day.” Lost in the world of senseless entertainment and entertainment of the senses, the two protagonists come upon the remains of passion and drive occasionally, and the question is, will that be enough?

First, an attempt at describing the plot of the film, a plot that makes you doubt if there is one in the first place, or if it matters at all. Withnail is a sleazy, lazy, alcoholic, charming, narcissistic, lying actor out of a job, and the character of “I” is Marwood, his long-time friend and roommate, an unemployed actor as well, but with less abysmal qualities and a somewhat more responsible, mature nature. To escape their everyday life in the city which is made up of neglect to any form of responsibility and constant binge drinking and substance abuse, they decide to ask Withnail’s uncle to lend them his country home so they can spend a few days there. Upon arriving, they found out it’s a dump lacking in basic facilities, and the place is home to unwelcoming farmers and poachers that threaten them with dead fish. Convinced that their life is in mortal danger, they cower in bed together preparing for the worst, when they find out that it’s only uncle Monty on a weekend visit to bring them supplies and spend some time with them. It is soon made clear that Monty’s visit has hidden motives behind it, and this flamboyant, eccentric homosexual (played by the late Richard Griffiths, the actor who played the mean uncle in the Harry Potter series) begins a series of sexual advances on the frightened yet polite Marwood.

Withnail and I is loosely based on Bruce Robinson’s own life, and he describes it as condensing a few years of his where he tried to be the voice of reason among a group of actors who sought nothing more than nights of binge drinking, and more particularly, his experiences with actor Vivian MacKerell, the inspiration behind the character of Withnail. The film’s two protagonists are what lends the film its livelihood and sense of bonding and connection; even though this is a film made in 80s England and set in 1969, its somehow ordinary events made absurd and comical transcend time and space, and a lot of people can identify with either of the two protagonists, or both of them, something I feel was a major reason behind the cult status of the film. The supporting characters are every bit as interesting and funny as the two protagonists: Danny, a flashy drug dealer and addict with an interest in conspiracy theories, politics and the strongest drugs known to man, with cheap makeup and a quirky accent is always a treat when he’s on screen, he is quotable, weirdly relatable and serenely insane; Monty, Withnail’s uncle, a homosexual who collects vintage wine, quotes classic literature and makes aggressive sexual advances is both romantic and awkward, sweet and forceful, and his unique presence is captured beautifully by Richard Griffiths’ performance, one of the best from his impressive career; the rest of the characters Withnail and Marwood interact with are all surreal and absurd in their own way which makes the whole film feel like one big joke an adult-child might come up with.

When it comes to comedy, I think of Withnail and I as a significantly less darker Naked (1993, Mike Leigh). Even though the latter deals with seemingly more serious and morbid subject matter, both films have a lot of similarities, and if you really think about it, both of them are about a group of characters thrown into a world where they have no clue how to behave “normally”, or even refuse to, as they try to figure out their place in the universe through interactions with their surroundings and acquaintances. And just like Naked, Withnail and I is shot in a very grim and dark fashion, not something typical of comedy, but is there anything typical about this film in the first place? What makes Withnail and I as funny as it is of course is the abundance of great dialogue and one-liners, which are constantly quoted by its many fans around the world. “We’ve gone on holiday by mistake”, “I demand to have some booze”, “We want the finest wines available to humanity, we want them here and we want them now!”, “A coward you are Withnail, an expert on bulls you are not!” and the iconic “chin-chin!”...amazing stuff.

Withnail and I is an absolute delight of a film, a dark comedy with two characters trying to find their place in the world as they drink and stumble their way through day after day; it is psychedelic, hilarious, drugged-out fun shot through a grim lens with an electric, rowdy soundtrack, an impressive amount of great, quotable lines and an obscene amount of fun.


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