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Withnail and I (1987)

by on 2012/12/19

withnail_and_I_1987“I think the carrot infinitely more fascinating than the geranium. The carrot has mystery. Flowers are essentially tarts. Prostitutes for the bees.”

* * *

I’ve always been kind of fascinated by people who willingly slip into poverty, chaos and squalor.

These cases are rare, I’ll admit. Most humans don’t willingly gravitate toward elective impoverishment, a hand to mouth existence, being forced to sponge off of a flimsy network of other gainfully-employed people.

That said, I met a few folks exactly like this in my time. They were reasonably educated, mostly capable people who opted out of the conventional work force, or any other money-generating enterprise, for a life of shiftless reliance. These few chose this lifestyle because of substance abuse problems, or because of raging narcissism or just due to plain laziness.

I suppose I could choose this lifestyle tomorrow, but I despise a feeling of needy dependence, relying on others for the food I eat and the roof over my head. Dependence gives me hives.

Again, not so for some.

In Withnail and I, two unemployed actors share a rat-infested, filth-encrusted flat in Camden Town. Strung out, hung over, dirty and paranoid, their only close relationships are with each other and their entertainingly phlegmatic drug deal Danny (Ralph Brown).

The “I” of the film, written and directed by Bruce Robinson, is played by Paul McGann (Dr. Who). The toll of drinking and living with his unhinged roomate Withnail played by Richard E. Grant (Dracula) has driven him to desire a minibreak in the country to get away from it all.

I picked this film for our month-long celebration of LGBT film because I remembered – apparently incorrectly – that Withnail’s uncle Monty played by the great Richard Griffiths (Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone) was a positive gay character. On second viewing, I’m not so sure.

I suppose there are no really, truly positive characters in this dark, damp film.

However, there are some things to recommend Uncle Monty.

He keeps a nice house. He has excellent taste in food and wine. He’s got money. He seems to be able to pay all of his own bills when Withnail and his pal, can’t seem to rub two shillings together.

Importantly for the story, Monty owns a rustic country cottage that he lends to the incompetent pair.

The scenes of the two city drunks flailing about in the muck and mire of the country are the highlights of the film. Finding the natives unfriendly, food nowhere to be found, and a general lack of coal and firewood, two spongers have further lowered their already extremely poor standard of living.

When Monty surprises the two with a visit, he transforms the squalid cottage into a gorgeous place, filled with candles, good food and wine. Unfortunately, he also becomes a bit rapey, complete with blue eye shadow, lipstick and unfastened robe. This is not positive. Not at all.

I understand why this is a cult film favourite. I do. Every line could be a quotable quote magnet or line on an ironic t-shirt. It is terribly clever.

The performances are outstanding. Richard E. Grant is incredible. What’s even more amazing to me is he’s apparently a strict teetotaler, who drank only to prep for this film.

He nailed it.

And McGann’s a terrific straight man with a case of the shakes.

But mostly, after the credits rolled, I just wanted to straighten up their flat, wash the dishes, clean their clothes and type them out some resumes.

* * *

107 min

Rated R for rape-y uncles, fatal levels of alcohol consumption, drug use and a scene with an old woman eating an eggie that would put anyone off breakfast for the rest of their lives

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