Withnail and I is one of the most quoted films of all time. James Oliver revisits a favourite of his youth with more mature eyes.
Withnail and I was a film drawn from the experiences of writer-director Bruce Robinson.
Before he was nominated for an Oscar for his script for The Killing Fields or achieved a measure of acting success in The Story of Adele H. (for François Truffaut) and Romeo and Juliet (for Franco Zeffirelli), Robinson had shared digs with a waspish young actor called Vivian MacKerrell. He became the model for Withnail.
Much of the film was drawn from his adventures with MacKerrell at the very fringes of polite society. ‘I”s awkward encounter with the amorous Uncle Monty (“I mean to have you, even if it must be burglary!”) however, is drawn from Robinson’s own awkward encounter with a then-prominent Italian film director.
Given that it’s based on anecdotes polished and perfected over 20 years, it’s hardly a surprise that the film is so funny, especially when it’s topped off with some of the most quotable dialogue available to humanity.
Like Hamlet, pretty much every Withnail and I line has entered the vernacular (“I demand to have some booze!”; “A coward you are, Withnail. An expert on bulls you are not!”; “We’ve gone on holiday by mistake”; “I’ve only had a few ales” amongst many, many others).
No matter how funny it is, it misrepresents the film to label it a comedy. This is, ultimately, a movie soaked in the most terrible sadness. Withnail himself makes for fine company but we can be in no doubt his lifestyle is not built to last.
The conclusion sees ‘I’ finally securing a job, in a play that requires him to smarten up and, to Withnail’s disgust, cut his hair.
Withnail is incapable of making such compromises, no matter how they might benefit his acting career, and is forever destined flounder through poverty and obscurity. He might recite a soliloquy from Hamlet at the end but we know he will never, in the words of Uncle Monty, “play the Dane.”
“Youngsters enjoy Withnail as a hero or even—God forbid—a role model because the consequences of his lifestyle are so hard to imagine.”
Such was the fate of the real Withnail, Vivian MacKerrell. A lifetime of heavy drinking took its toll; he was diagnosed with throat cancer around the time the film was released and he died, aged only 50, in 1995.