WITHNAIL & I’s Slow Burn To British Immortality

How Bruce Robinson's debut became one of the most beloved British films of all time. 

“I’m bemused by it and, of course, terribly pleased…I never had any idea that Withnail & I was gonna be that.” –Writer/director Bruce Robinson

There’s a good reason Robinson didn’t expect his pseudo self-portrait debut would ever live past its initial run. Frankly, it shouldn’t have. It didn’t make any money, meaning almost no one saw it. Before that Robinson himself conceded his own ineptitude for filmmaking while the film was in production. It didn’t stand a chance at success. How then did this underperforming comedy about two out-of-work actors “going on holiday” become one of the most beloved British films of all time?

Maybe the reason lies somewhere in the fact that it was a truly British product. This is easy to surmise just from the film’s two main settings of Camden Town, London and the rural Buckinghamshire. (Really, how much more British can you get than Buckinghamshire?) But it’s more than that. It’s the dry humor. The lack of narrative structure. The attention to dialogue and language rather than plot and story. Like the great British cinematic comedies of the 20th century, Withnail & I stands out because it wholeheartedly sidesteps convention and plays by its own rules. No one talks about the film’s grand story or its emotional impact. Instead its die-hard fans recount the film’s memorable lines and monologues ad nauseum because that’s where the soul of Robinson’s bleak, black British comedy lies.

This is nothing new in British film. Just look at Monty Python. The Brits know where laughs can be found. It’s not touching the heart but working the mind. And, probably most important, a great comedy has to skirt the line between absurdity and reality.

Withnail does this right from the start as we meet the film’s main characters Withnail and Marwood (“I”). Marwood’s overtly philosophical and melodramatic voiceover is perfectly toned for a self-absorbed, dramatic wannabe actor. His words are both very funny and completely honest. Withnail matches his dramatic flair by creating monologues from everyday activities like reading the newspaper and buying drugs.  Their opening conversations contain some of the film’s most brilliantly funny lingual bits. Take Withnail’s tirade to their poverty-stricken state: “How can it be so cold in here? It's like Greenland in here. We've got to get some booze. It's the only solution to this intense cold. Something's got to be done. We can't go on like this. I'm a trained actor reduced to the status of a bum.”

This need pushes two more great characters into Withnail & I’s thin plot: Danny and Uncle Monty. The former is a wannabe intellectual drug dealer whose constant fuzzy state of mind makes him spout off horribly trite conspiracy theories. Monty, Withnail’s flamboyant uncle, has a little more going on upstairs, but can’t help the fact that he turns every conversation into a sexual innuendo. Both of these characters could easily be one-dimensional, but come brilliantly and honestly to life because of the hilarious words Robinson wrote for them to speak. In Withnail & I, unlike most films, words speak louder than actions.

And this is really the ebb and flow of the film. Characters talk, want to do something, do it (as long as it’s easy) and talk again. Robinson described the film years later as simply “people yakking.” But because of his brilliant words the film works far better than it really should. It also helps that its cast gives stellar, legendary performances. The late Richard Griffiths infuses Monty’s double entendres with such conviction that he becomes a real person despite the ludicrous nature of his words. Richard E. Grant managed to start a career because of his work as Withnail. And Paul McCann, stuck to playing the straight man Marwood, plays a perfect foil to the insanity that surrounds him.

Does Withnail & I’s strong British essence explain the phenomenon it has become? Since it was released over 25 years ago it moved to cult classic status than even higher, continually being named one of the greatest British films of all time. Robinson simply said he had luck on his side, the casting was perfect and the production kept going without a hitch. When Roger Ebert tried to determine the source of the film’s success, his best explanation was that “It is uncompromisingly, sincerely, itself.” In his British Film Institute Study, Kevin Jackson believed the film’s popularity sprung from “its very strange mixture of farce and lyricism.” Those are the best answers you’re likely to find: this film is lucky, honest and strange. So, you see, no one really knows. I think the best answer simply lies in the commitments shown by the film’s many fans.

Speaking personally I can’t really pinpoint what makes the film so great, but I often find myself trying to “sell” it to friends with no idea how to properly convince them. You just have to sit down, watch it and give yourself over to Robinson’s insanely original British masterpiece. Once you do and are certainly won over you’ll find yourself “selling” it to every friend you can.

This was originally published in the "Cheers! A Celebration of Pub Life" issue of Birth.Movies.Death. See Withnail & I at the Alamo Drafthouse this month