"Richard E Grant's performance is a masterpiece in comic acting."

It's spawned a (probably suicidal) drinking game, regularly makes it onto Top Ten lists (especially of Britflicks) and must be one of the most quoted films ever. But, twenty years on, does Withnail and I manage to stand up?

Acolytes and novices alike have a chance to find out at the moment, as the cult comedy is being re-screened in a spanking new print as part of the Summer of British Film season. It's being shown at 136 screens nationwide on September 11. But, with a double-dvd anniversary edition in the shops, is it worth seeing on the big screen?

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My answer would be emphatically yes. And not only because, as a fully paid-up member of the fan club, I'd say any opportunity to see this film again is worth taking up. This new release also proves that, despite its reputation being largely based on the script and the performances, it's also beautifully shot; director of photography Peter Hannan's part in creating the film's unique ambience hasn't always been given the credit it deserves.

The opening shot illustrates this. As a spooky jazz improv version of Whiter Shade Of Pale wails on the soundtrack, the camera zooms in on Paul McGann's face. The 'I' of the title (though named Marwood in the original screenplay), he's clearly in the midst of a serious comedown, wordlessly conveying fear, paranoia and depression as he paces around the Camden Town flat from hell, with every malodorous detail of it shown in forensic clarity. It's no wonder he escapes to the cafe across the road, where again an image of a grey, unhealthy corner of London where the Sixties have resolutely refused to swing by, is perfectly conjured up. First-time voters may well be somewhat bemused by this stage. When do the hilarious quotable one-liners arrive? When do they start drinking? And when will Withnail himself put in an appearance? But when Marwood returns and his flatmate emerges all such misgivings (for me, at least) fall away.

Quite simply, Richard E Grant's performance is a masterpiece in comic acting. From his first entrance, railing at his lack of professional success ("can't even get a bloody cigar commercial!") and drinking lighter fluid to keep warm, you just can't take your eyes off him. Each facial tic, grandiloquent musing and doomed attempt to preserve his dishevelled dignity, is superbly timed and delivered; selfish, funny, charming, dependent, full of life but quite possibly doomed, he epitomises the kind of friend you love hanging around with but realise you'll have to let go of eventually.

Marwood's gradual realisation of this provides a poignant undercurrent to the developing comedy, as the duo realise they have "entered the arena of the unwell" and pay a visit to Withnail's Uncle Monty (Griffiths), a well-to-do character on the fringes of the London theatre scene with a passion for root vegetables and a holiday cottage in the Lake District.

Seeking a respite from their unending binges, and the temptations of their spaced-out drug dealer Danny (Brown) they manage to haul their battered Jaguar up there, but find the cottage equally dank and rain-soaked. The natives are unfriendly, and when Monty joins them it soon become clear that he is besotted with Marwood and that Withnail has encouraged him to think his feelings might be reciprocated...

Furious, Marwood demands that they return to London. Here they find that Danny has taken up residence in the flat, the bills are still mounting up - and Marwood has been offered a part in a play, offering him a potential way out...

There's certainly a melancholy tinge to all this. Withnail is clearly the more fragile of the two and his closing monologue (quoting Hamlet to a wolf at London Zoo!) makes clear the depth of his feelings for his friend. Monty is still being punished for his sexual orientation (the film reminds us that this was an era where homosexuality had only recently become decriminalised), and even Danny realises that the "greatest decade in the history of humanity is almost over - and we have singularly failed to paint it black".

But it's also consistently hilarious; the list of great lines and monologues would fill this review space on its own but personally I'd defy anyone to listen to Withnail's diatribe against the steroid-enhanced shotputter Jeff Woad without rupturing their funny bone. It has to be said that there are a few people who don't 'get' the film's humour at all, and it could be argued that Monty's fruity, verbose ''drama queen" is something of a stereotype. But kudos to Robinson for creating a uniquely British comedy, simultaneously anarchic and literate; to Hannan for recreating a none-more-grim vision of London and making the Lake District look fabulous even when it's raining; and to one of the great comedy double-acts in cinema. If you haven't seen it, you should; if you have, see it again. Just don't try the drinking game afterwards.

Reviewed on: 05 Sep 2007
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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 *****
Angus Wolfe Murray ****1/2

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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