It’s always interesting to revisit an old favourite. You’re never entirely sure how well it’s going to hold up after the passage of so many years. Withnail and I (1987), shown here in a spanking new high resolution print, is a good case in point. I saw it on its first release when working as a reviewer for Manchester’s City Life Magazine and fully remember being absolutely blown away by it, laughing hysterically from start to finish. Though I’ve seen it a few times on TV over the years, it is great to have the opportunity to watch it again, as it was always intended to be seen.
Set in 1969, at the fag end of the hippie movement, it concerns two ‘resting’ actors residing in a dilapidated London flat, both of them dreaming of theatrical success and in the meanwhile going about the nearly full time task of getting themselves thoroughly wasted. After which, needing a break, they go on holiday in the country ‘by mistake.’
The role of Withnail provided Richard E. Grant with a stunning cinematic swansong and launched him on a long and varied career which continues to this day (though it’s sobering to reflect that in everything he’s done since, he never again had a role as downright memorable as this one). As his friend and flatmate, Paul McGann is so much more than just a foil. His bleak voiceovers are the glue that holds this shambolic series of misadventures together and his total incomprehension of his friend’s selfish, venal and manipulative habits is always a source of considerable merriment. Whilst we’re handing out the plaudits, let’s not forget Ralph Brown’s inspired turn as drug dealer and philosophiser Danny, which also provided him with a career high. Most telling of all, can there be any other film that features so many downright quotable one-liners? I seriously doubt it.
If there’s a problem with viewing a film that is so ‘of its time’, it inevitably comes with the late Richard Griffiths’ portrayal of the predatory Uncle Monty, a rich homosexual who has set his sites on ‘I’ and means to have him by any means at his disposal. There’s nothing wrong with Griffiths’ performance, of course. Like most of his screen work, it’s exemplary and he somehow manages to evoke genuine sympathy for a tragic character who is, more than anything else, lonely – but all that talk about buggery by force does make you feel rather uncomfortable. Is the film homophobic? Yes, undoubtedly – and I’m quite sure that, were it being shot in this day and age, writer/director Bruce Robinson would be obliged to rein in certain aspects of his script. Sadly, Robinson too never fulfilled the potential he demonstrated here – How To Get Ahead in Advertising, also starring Grant, was a much-anticipated misfire and the two films he’s made since then have failed to demonstrate his flair for whip-smart dialogue.
Ultimately, Withnail and I still works, even if – these days – I’m laughing more from familiarity than anything else. How great it would be to go back and view it, once again, for the very first time. It may, with the gift of hindsight, be a flawed classic – but a classic it undoubtedly remains.