Former actor and Academy Award-nominated screenwriter of The Killing Fields, Bruce Robinson made his highly impressive directorial debut with witty and perceptive black comedy Withnail and I. set at the fag-end of the “Swinging Sixties” which The Times called “a striking, quirky slice of autobiographical comedy … a film with a personal, thoughtful touch: rare qualities in the frantic, imitative world of British screen comedy”.
Withnail and I , originally written as a novel in 1970, is a semi-autobiographical piece based on the filmmaker’s life as a drama student and actor; said Robinson, “Every incident in the film happened at one time or another. They’re just little things I noticed between about 1967 – when the ‘sixties’ really exploded – and 1970, and condensed into a couple of weeks at the end of 1969. It was an astonishing time to have gone through. So animated. For me it was ‘the best of times and the worst of times’.
In many ways this is a celebration of that period in my life”. The film opens with an unforgettable pan around the truly disgusting London flat inhabited by out-of-work actors Richard E Grant (“Withnail”) and Paul McGann (“I”, Robinson’s celluloid alter ego and the film’s laconic narrator) whose sink, crammed to the brim with suppurating dirty dishes covered with green fungal growths that would keep a mycologist in work for months.
Their diet largely consists of alcohol and drugs, with down-at-heel dealer Ralph Brown providing the latter. Grant and McGann decide to get out of London and borrow Grant’s gay former actor uncle Richard Griffiths’ cottage in the Lake District. When the intrepid duo finally reach the cottage after a hazardous drive, they find the place lacking in light, heat or water. The weather is wet and their stay is further enlivened by encounters with a randy bull and with psychotic poacher Michael Elphick. And things go from bad to disastrous with the arrival of Griffiths who, filled with passion and red wine, takes a shine to McGann and, during the night, attempts to seduce him. McGann is saved by a telegram from his agent summoning him back to London. On the way he and Grant are stopped for drunken driving and when they reach Camden Town, find an eviction order on their flat and Brown in possession. However, McGann has been offered a leading role in a play and, as the Sixties draw to a close, he and Grant go their separate ways …
Withnail and I is very funny, intelligent, and ultimately, thanks in large measure to the extraordinarily good performances elicited from Grant, McGann and Griffiths, affecting. The characters, apart from “I”, narrator and embryo writer, were composites of people who were part of Robinson’s world of drama school and struggling actors and the considerable strength of the film lies in characterization and performance rather than plot and narrative. Grant (later to star for Robinson in How To Get Ahead in Advertising ) and McGann were perfectly cast and made assured and telling film debuts, with Grant taking the honours and displaying fine, and subsequently triumphantly confirmed, talent.
First-time director Robinson, having provided himself with a splendid screenplay, proceeded to bring it to the screen with considerable skill and perception. “It was like building the Titanic”, he said, “We’d sit up and talk and re-read it all night. We learned from each other. I knew nothing about directing, but I had acted, so we worked on getting the performances right. Richard E Grant who plays Withnail, is as straight as they come, half a junior aspirin and he’s on his back. So one night I kept him up and force fed him vodka, got him completely demolished. The next morning we dragged him to rehearsals, pissed as a tart. But I wouldn’t let him go until he’d got it right. From then on, he had a chemical memory of what it was like to be wasted. Once we got that we were off, we were flying”.
UK / 1987
Writer and Director: Bruce Robinson
Cast: Richard E Grant, Paul McGann, Richard Griffith, Ralph Brown, Michael Elphick