Eye For Film >> Movies >> Withnail And I (1986) Film Review
Withnail And I
Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode
Rated by more than one popular movie magazine as 'the best film in the world', Withnail And I is a modest, low-budget effort which has gained a massive cult following in the years since its release. Following the adventures of two London-based actors who go on holiday by mistake, it is a bold, ineffable and drink-sodden picture of the disintegration of the Sixties Bohemian dream, and, in its own way, one of the most important cinematic studies of what it means to be a man in the 20th century.
Its brilliant script veering between eloquence and obscenity, its story slender but potent, its camerawork morbidly evocative, Withnail And I is in many ways a perfect film; it's difficult to look at any part of it and see how it could have been done better. Sadly, its two leads, Richard E Grant and Paul McGann, have never lived up to the promise they show here, but this in itself could be considered a charming irony in light of the characters they play.
As Withnail, Grant is a prolific and creative liar, using his wit to disguise his failings from all but the friend who knows him best. He is also a gleeful alcoholic, and the quantity of drink consumed in this film rivals that in the Roman epics. McGann's character, meanwhile, has much of his destiny shaped by reactions to his feminine appearance, a situation made all the more difficult by the fact his career depends on the public's liking for him. The sexual tension between these two is brought to a critical point by the flirtation of Withnail's tragic, eccentric and gloriously melodramatic Uncle Monty, making it all the more difficult for them to escape their traditional male roles for long enough to express the real affection they have for one another. Unspoken sorrows are smothered with booze and drugs; Withnail's disappearing youth is a metaphor for their loss of faith in alternative culture, yet throughout, this story is full of humour, tremendously playful and entertaining.
Robinson's use of subdued lighting and disintegrating interiors gives this film a stark and honest appearance which is complemented by understated performances from the supporting cast, creating a strong sense of place which is important to our understanding both of the characters' background and of their frustrations with it.
Whether unemployed in London or wandering around the moors outside Penrith trying to shoot fish for dinner, our desperately civilised heroes seem persistently to be confounded by a harsh world which has no place for them. Their literary and artistic sensibilities are not matched by real world coping skills. They give the impression of natural aristocrats fallen on hard times, and it is from this that the film derives much of its charm, as it's hard not to feel sympathy for the boorish and exploitative Withnail even when he is at his most self-destructive. Astute editing never lets the pace slacken, and the viewer is easily made a conspirator in the madness on display.
Withnail And I is a film which should be considered compulsory viewing for all young people with leanings toward intellectualism and the counter-culture, both as a warning and as an example of how to do it in style.Reviewed on: 04 Apr 2009
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