Monday, April 11, 2022

Film Club Featurette: Withnail and I (1987)

Join us Wednesday, 13 April at 6:30pm at YK Art House for Bruce Robinson’s dark, subversive, and forever-quotable rumination on post-modern cultural decay in Britain, Withnail and I, starring Richard E Grant and Paul McGann. 

Inspired by Robinson’s own experiences as a struggling west-end actor at the time, Withnail and I plumbs the squalid melancholy that so many others have elected to forget about the drug-fueled 1960s, and comes up cherries across the reels with a hilarious and ultimately heartbreaking riff-parade that is still being cheerfully de-contextualized by quotesmiths to this day. The vehicles for all of this piercing social comment (for in the end that is really all they are in this picture, vehicles) are the two main characters, aspiring theater-actors who spend their time drinking, bickering, drinking, taking drugs, drinking, and failing at every single thing they do. 

Unable to find official work, the charismatic Withnail is forced instead to “perform himself” – choosing to voice his character as a sort of mashup of Edward VIII and Keith Richards. “A man,” in the words of Gene Siskel, “whose greatest talent is for squandering his talents.” Then of course there is Withnail’s unnamed straight man, “I,” whose job in the main character’s life seems to vacillate between dubious antagonist and intentionally sabotaged errand-boy. And in the highest and most perfectly inexplicable traditions of the comedic straight-men of theater, “I” simply keeps on coming back for more. (The drugs don’t hurt in this regard, to be fair.)
That a movie this threadbare and unstructured could work this well is no small tribute to the creative vision of Robinson, for whom this was a very first attempt at either writing or directing. Most reasonable persons would have angled their debut efforts along a much safer and less astringent line, but Robinson was having none of that—opting instead for what A. O. Scott summarized as, “an exploration into the brooding aesthetic of awfulness.” 

By turns we witness drug-fueled monologues, technicolour non-sequiturs, a madcap misadventure with a pile of dirty dishes in a common sink, and a pointless road trip that manages to take up more than half the film without doing or accomplishing much of anything at all. In the end, bereft in a driving rain and nowhere in particular in the suddenly gloomy-seeming London, one of our leads is finally left to confront his mortal loneliness and utter lack of self-direction—thus inspiring himself to perform Hamlet’s soliloquy to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, “What a piece of work is man.” 

And we melt. 

We melt in spite of ourselves, in spite of our simmering disliking for the individual in question, in spite of having seen something not unlike this coming from essentially the moment we first sat down. ...Which, really when one thinks about it, is probably the truest reason why this movie is so damned enduring and universally beloved. Mention “The Hamlet scene from Withnail” to an even casual cinephile and you’re apt to get a rendition, sure, but you’re also apt to notice how it trails off in the middle as your friend labours to keep himself emotionally together for it, thinking of that poor guy in the rain. It’s a performance within a performance within the performance, and—for all of that—it is one of the greatest moments of Shakespeare recitation in cinematic history. What a piece of work is man, indeed. 

I hope everyone will plan to join us Wednesday, 13 April, at 6:30pm, for this touchstone of iconic British cinema. Goodness knows the post-credits discussion will no doubt be as lively as any we’ve yet had. 

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