The Genius of ‘Withnail and I,’ Thirty Years Later

Bruce Robinson’s beloved black comedy, which casts a riotous, unsparing look at friendship, turns 30 years old this June. Here’s what makes it a classic.

Cineplex-Odeon Pictures/Everett Collection

The term black comedy can be a bit of a left-handed compliment, a warning as if to say, “what you will experience here won’t actually make you laugh, but it’s twisted and ironic, off-kilter, and not strictly serious like drama tends to be.”

We have anecdotes, for instance, of Kafka laughing his ass off as he wrote The Metamorphosis, but if we see a dude in a café reading that book and chuckling along, we invariably think he’s doing it for show, as if this will woo a hipster boy or girl or two scattered around.

Bruce Robinson’s film Withnail and I, which premiered thirty years ago on April 10, gets the black comedy tag as if by a fait accompli, like the label is woven into the very bylaws of any discussion you might have about the film.

It involves two struggling actors/housemates, Richard E. Grant’s Withnail, and the I of the title—played by Paul McGann—and billed as Marwood in Robinson’s screenplay, though no one says his name aloud in the picture. It’s a film about friendship, from the ceiling to the baseboards, one might say; that is, the top portions and those at the bottom, and how we come together in life with people we must come together with for a while, whom we must eventually depart from.

That’s sobering and certainly un-riotous, which is interesting, as this is as riotous a film, verbally, as a Marx Brothers picture is visually. Some might call the plot threadbare: it’s 1969, Withnail and Marwood live in London in a flat where rodents scurry about a kitchen that is sure to make you feel better about your own—even if you’re a squatter. Withnail cons his gay uncle Monty into letting them use his cottage in the country, where, in Withnail’s words, they go on “holiday by mistake,” sans food or any means to procure any. They see dastardly intentions in the eyes of everyone and everything they encounter, from a poacher to a randy bull who wants to get past a hapless Marwood and make its way down the paddock hill to do its business with some cows.

Withnail talks in a faux-Shakespearean manner. When a prowler is suspected outside the cottage, after Withnail has taken to Marwood’s bed and footsteps are heard in the house, his solution to his friend is “offer yourself to him.” We all know this kind of guy—and, certainly, who he is looking out for. He’s the hilarious friend you tolerate, partially because people so in need of looking out for themselves—or who think they are—are the ones we need to look out for if they’re our friend. Just as we necessarily put up with a lot from them.

It helps, of course, to have another friend or two in common, so you can discuss your rakehell buddy with, but that’s part of Marwood’s difficulties in Withnail and I. Withnail regularly demands his booze, the finest wines in all the world, claims there is no drug and drink admixture he can’t easily handle—and then handle double that amount—which means that even when he is drinking lighter fluid, falling to the ground, and vomiting on his friend’s shoes, he’s a talker.

But he talks so well that even if a listener’s ears might have otherwise fallen off and ran, in this context they’re drawn to this figure. The figure in this case doesn’t know it, really, but he certainly hopes for it, for a very simple reason: He’s lonely. Like most of us. Which makes him talk more. Which makes Marwood try to stick around more, hard as that is turning out to be.

The trip to the countryside—which looks like something straight out of the verse of John Clare—is soundtracked with Jimi Hendrix’s “All Along the Watchtower” as Withnail explains a device he has that will stock the untainted urine of babies, so that one can fool a copper after being pulled over for drunken driving.

What’s intriguing is that the Hendrix music is slightly slowed down, just as Hendrix’s performance of “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)” will be on the way back from the disastrous holiday, which concludes with Uncle Monty showing up in the middle of the night to try and bed Marwood, whom Withnail had told his uncle was a “toilet trader.” After all, without the promise of gay sex, there was no way to underwrite the trip.

Those slightly-slowed-down Hendrix tunes do something with our conception of time, positing how it can be stretched or compacted in our memory, in proportion to our depths of feeling regarding a given event. A chicken has been killed, a bull reined in, eels bartered for, fish hunted with a shotgun, a gay uncle rebuffed, a shot fired in the night, but the film’s focus has not veered from the dynamic between these two actor friends. Not for us as viewers, not for them in the context of their own bond.

Friendship in perpetual close proximity can be suffocating, and friendship also can have a shelf life. Most things in life, no matter how wonderful, have a shelf life. That’s life and that, in part, is why it can be a bear, and why it’s always about what is next and what could be next, though we so often think and feel that it’s about what has happened and what cannot happen again, though we wish it would.

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Withnail is figuring all of this out, his zaniness and misadventures and ridiculous pronouncements and his florid ejaculations being but simulacra of an internal holding pattern, an outpouring of fear that life needs to be gotten on with. His career near thirty is going nowhere, his mother hangs up on him, his agent can’t get him a part and does the same. Things, in short, are not working.

Upon their return to London, to a flat where their drug dealer friend Danny and his buddy Presuming Ed have taken up residence, Marwood learns that he’s been cast for a lead part. A note from the landlord turns up: they’ve been thrown out for unpaid rent. The old gang is being broken up, and if it wasn’t plain before, it’s clear now that the trip to the country was like a honeymoon in reverse, but one necessary for a parting that simply had to come.

This is perhaps the most endlessly quotable of all funny films, even as it repeatedly cracks the human heart. If you’re a fifteen-year-old who loves his or her locker room humor, boy howdy are you in for a treat if you don’t know this picture. You can dazzle your friends with lines from it. If you’ve loved and lost and not been able to kick clear of the past, it’s a work to drink in as you knock back a few ales, maybe before resolving to do less of that come the next day, and try something else.

That’s how the duo leaves us and each other, with Withnail walking Marwood in the rain to the train station, carrying an umbrella and a bottle of wine to toast his friend, which is, in effect, a toast to someone leaving him behind to fend for himself.

Outside the gates of the London Zoo, as a couple of wolves gather on the other side of the fence, Withnail turns his face upward to the rain falling down, and delivers a version of Hamlet’s “What a piece of work man is” monologue, which, of course, was spoken to two friends—Rosencrantz and Guildenstern—who certainly stayed together too long. The wolves look on, as do we, before Withnail turns his back to the camera, and walks away.

There isn’t much in this world we can do alone, including moving on. Friendship, ideally, binds, but it can also unbind, so something else in the future might better do so with another something else. And if you want people to see what that is like, you probably should make them laugh while you do it. Hence, Withnail and I, a film about friendship that is also a friend.