“It is the most shattering experience of a young man’s life when one morning he awakes and quite reasonably says to himself: I will never play the Dane. When that moment comes, one’s ambition ceases.” This quote belongs to Montague “Monty” Withnail (Richard Griffiths), uncle of the eponymous character in Bruce Robinson’s Withnail & I, and it’s one of many resonant examples of foreshadowing the movie has to offer. When Withnail (Richard E. Grant) proclaims that he intends to play the part, Monty spouts “and you’ll be marvellous. Marvellous!” It proves to be so when, later on, Withnail declaims Shakespeare to an unanticipated audience.
Withnail & I charts the demise of a friendship. Two unemployed actors, Withnail and “I” (“Marwood” per the script, portrayed by Paul McGann) live in a squalid flat in Camden Town. Despairing at their circumstances, they decide to borrow a cottage in Penrith from Withnail’s wealthy uncle Monty, where they prove to be entirely inept at anything outside of drinking. They spend a weekend of debauchery and chaos that goes from picking fights with the local poacher to Marwood being sexually assaulted by Monty at Withnail’s implicit behest. The duo then returns to the city, but not without running into trouble that’s related, yet again, to Withnail’s all-encompassing alcoholism. Once in town, they find their pad occupied by drug-dealer Danny (Ralph Brown) and his entrepreneurial friend, Presuming Ed, where they receive a notice of eviction. A brief respite is reached when Marwood lands a leading role in Manchester and can thus turn his life around. In order to do so, however, he must — and does — leave Withnail behind. Though circuitous, the plot is simple; the writing and performances, delightful.
While the story of the film’s production is no less engaging, it has also been exhaustively well-documented. This little-comedy-that-could was the beneficiary of an unusual conflation of good luck and talent: from the replacement of rising star Daniel Day-Lewis for newcomer Richard E. Grant, to the production or support of former Beatles George Harrison and Ringo Starr; through Robinson succeeding to commission promotional art out-of-pocket from Ralph Steadman and Grant receiving dubious dietary counsel from Gary Oldman, the anecdotes can be traced back to several books, and I will not go into them here other than to say that Withnail & I was, as it were, meant to happen, and that it has capably enjoyed the happy afterlife of cult films. It should undergo a resurgence at the hands of those most damaged by the Great Recession, the “trained actors” of all stripes who have been forced into resting roles or kept as understudies for much longer than they could have reasonably expected.
Though the film was released in 1987, the action takes place in 1969, in or about “91 days from the end of this decade (and there’s going to be a lot of refugees).” Rupert Murdoch had just acquired the News of the World and, even then, the red top was enough to spark the critical anxiety of people who, like Marwood, were sensitive enough to realize they were becoming hopelessly enmeshed within a “bloody nightmare.” 1969 was also the year in which Grant first arrived in England from his native Swaziland to experience culture shock at the manifold states of disrobement he was met with at every turn in late-60s London. It is not too farfetched to assert that, when Withnail coats himself in “Deep Heat,” with a crown of pubic hair rimming his soiled underwear, he emerges as a psychedelic Marianne of sorts: the living — and yet more importantly, the moribund— instantiation of a Britain irrevocably “coming down from its trip.”
Nor is it farfetched to refer to Withnail in the feminine, either. While the movie shows a striking dearth of women, Vivian MacKerrell — Robinson’s friend and classmate at the Central School of Speech and Drama on whom Withnail was inspired — has, until quite recently, been featured on the IMDB as an actress. The movie is chock-full with digs and insinuations of homoeroticism, some of them crude, others more subtle and rife with dramatic potential and longing. Robinson’s traumatic experience at the hands of Franco Zefirelli as a young man is referenced in the headline “Boy Lands Plum Role for Top Italian Director” (with Withnail crassly drawing the correlation between money and arse), and Marwood’s tabloid-induced panic attack is triggered as he holds a sensationalistic “Moment of fulfilment for local boy who became a woman” in his hands. It almost goes without saying that gender-bending is a typical Shakespearean bait-and-switch.
Identity is further confused as Withnail is persistently impersonating others, whether it is as a serviceman-turned-journalist, a multimillionaire or — oh, the bitter irony — an up-and-coming actor being edged (“back”) to the Royal Shakespeare by his agent. He is a man on the last of his elongate legs who has donned an armor of prosopopeia as he hurtles toward self-destruction. On more than one occasion, Withnail considers taking a stage name, though his two suggestions — one of which explicitly presents him as a Wolfe — ring false. Despite his considerable sway over Marwood — both through his decadent, aristocratic langueur, and via their shared dependence on the bottle — the latter guards himself from “drifting into the arena of the unwell [and] making an enemy of our own future,” while Withnail does not. There is in him, instead, a lack of forethought — the extremely selfish person’s paradoxical weak purchase on self-preservation — that is at odds with his otherwise profuse imagination.
So, there’s at least one level in which Withnail is already playing the Dane without ever breaking character. It is not a coincidence that the most iconic moments in the film — Withnail screaming at the “sterile promontory,” Withnail reciting Shakespeare to the wolves — are almost Artaudian in tone. They find him speaking into (maybe even entering) some sort of convers(at)ion with the “inhumane” that he himself had raged against during the first act of the film.
Add to this that the rate, speed and tilt of his drinking are dizzying, and rooted equally as a fatal flaw within the character and at the narrative spine of the film. Indeed, it is the automatism of Withnail’s drinking, which finds him imbibing anything that bears imbibing — and then some — that feels comic. In a movie that’s already laced with a menacing sadness, the comicity of the script helps underscore the forlornness of a situation that can only culminate in the termination of the friendship between the two men, or in the implosion of both. The infamous scene in which Withnail guzzles lighter fluid — something MacKerrell is claimed to have done, but also a glaring instance of Withnail’s own internally combusting processes — is, even if unstatedly so, suicidal. Even Withnail’s hoped-for cigarette commercial carries lethal connotations.
The ending monologue is among the most wrenching interpretations of Hamlet’s “What a piece of work is man” committed to film (the other being, arguably, the end to Lindsay Anderson’s Brittania Hospital), in which Withnail — whom, it really must be said, would have turned a formidable Dane — speaks to the caged wolves in the London Zoo:
I have of late — but wherefore I know not — lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercises, and indeed it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory; this most excellent canopy, the air — look you, this brave o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire — why, it appears no other thing to me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours. What a piece of work is man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world. The paragon of animals. And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust. Man delights not me. No, nor woman neither.
He closes with a melancholy and mysterious repetition of: “nor woman neither.” Then, as the credits roll, he crosses Regent’s Park. In the original script, Withnail arrives home to load a shotgun with the 53 Margaux he stole from Monty, which he fires into his mouth. This dénouement was binned for being a tad macabre, and its removal probably makes the film more effective. It works to remind us that there is always time for one more drink. Until, of course, there isn’t.
Mónica Belevan (@LapsusLima) is a writer and designer who has frequently flirted with film. Collaborating with Vague Visages will be her next step in committing to it.