"Not so much a paean to the Sixties, rather a tribute to those wasted years before the discipline of work kicks in."

First time around Bruce Robinson's autobiographical journey from the pits of depravity in Camden Town to the muddy damp hell of a cottage in the Lake District, where a pink-faced, podgy queen professes love and devotion, seemed much ado about nothing. Having matured over time, the quality of its writing and acting justifies the film's cult status - not so much a paean to the Sixties, rather a tribute to those wasted years before the discipline of work kicks in.

Where Robinson succeeds brilliantly is recreating the squalour of shared accommodation and the love/hate relationship between two friends who have known each other long enough to abuse the privilege. The dialogue is naked, with the exception of Danny (Ralph Brown), the drug dealer, whose language has lost its way in a labyrinth of surreal damage. A statement such as "We are drifting into the arena of the unwell", or "There's a teabag growing", may sound unexpected to the untutored ear, but it's the way they talked and, therefore, never pretentious.

Copy picture

Withnail (Richard E Grant) is a glorious character, almost completely beyond redemption. Alcoholic, lazy and disloyal, he displays an aristocratic arrogance in his attitude towards the outside world. Pathetically, he can turn on the charm when it suits, but his response to everyday life is entirely negative. He expects things to be given, not worked for.

I (Paul McGann), a thin disguise of the writer/director, is more grounded. He may be on the brink of nervous collapse, as paranoid as the next man, if the next man is Withnail, and yet capable of looking beyond the pit of a kitchen to a place where meals are allowed to die with dignity.

They are actors, which may explain Withnail's enunciation and over-emotional outbursts, usually to do with drink, or the lack of it. Naturally, they are "resting". When living in a flat that should have been condemned by the Council as a health hazard becomes unbearable, they drive North in a clapped-out Jag to stay a few nights in the Lake District, where Withnail's Uncle Monty (Richard Griffiths) has a draughty stone cottage.

Battling the elements, as well as Uncle Monty, who turns up, hopeful of some naughty fun with "the dear boys", they realise, each in their own way, that country living is not for them. Rats in Camden Town are less threatening than a randy bull in a slippery field.

Robinson's eye for detail is as sharp as a fox. Driving up the motorway with one headlight and only the passenger windscreen wiper working is exactly right. Withnail would never be bothered with garages. Perhaps climbing up the burn barefoot shooting at fish with a 12-bore is pushing it, even for these idiots. But everything in the flat is perfect, especially the kitchen, where unwashed plates congeal in weeks old water, already alive with endangered species.

McGann had done one television and Grant nothing when they accepted the roles. Robinson had never directed anything. It was a leap in the dark and it worked because they made it work. Grant is particularly fine and, for a man who doesn't drink, quite remarkable. McGann captures that element of nervousness at the end of the Sixties when the possibility of madness is reinforced by the behaviour of those around him. Griffiths is magnificent and Brown inspired.

When faced with having to deal with the kitchen sink and whatever it is that lives there, fear takes hold.

"Wait till the morning and we'll go in together."

"It is the morning."

Robinson never did anything like this again. How could he? It's all here.

Reviewed on: 30 Nov 2001
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The cult film about the adventures of two out-of-work actors on holiday in the Lake District gets a big screen re-issue.
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Read more Withnail And I reviews:

Jennie Kermode *****
Jeff Robson ****

Director: Bruce Robinson

Writer: Bruce Robinson

Starring: Richard E Grant, Paul McGann, Richard Griffiths, Ralph Brown, Michael Elphick, Daragh O'Malley

Year: 1986

Runtime: 108 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: UK


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