Monday, December 26, 2011

I'd Love To Turn You On - At the Movies #29 - Withnail & I (1987, dir. Bruce Robinson)

The 60’s in England is generally viewed as being quite "swinging" - dolly birds in mini-skirts, paisley-shirted mods hanging around Carnaby Street, Twiggy, Michael Caine. It is one of those times and places, even with the social conflict, drug busts and scandals, that is looked upon rosily - a multi-coloured cultural zeitgeist which gave us The Avengers and Sgt. Pepper. However, we are treated to a different view in Withnail & I, for what comes after the summer of love? The winter of discontent, it appears.
One of those “charming, little” English films, Withnail & I is a tale of two hopelessly unemployed (unemployable?), neurotic thespians and their various uproariously inept adventures. The action initially takes place in their Young Ones-esque North London flat - a living situation so dire they attempt to escape all the horror by retreating to the countryside. An idyllic holiday ensues? Not quite. In fact, things only go from worse to even worse, made worse by their complete lack of survival skills, a parade of unhelpful bucolic-types and randy Uncle Monty (the sublime Richard Griffiths).
Richard E. Grant is utterly mesmerizing as Withnail, a dementedly erudite degenerate, prone to manic bouts of drug and alcohol consumption and spouting delightful, crude Wilde-isms. It's a role of a lifetime and Grant rightfully shot to stardom upon the film's release. His roommate, Marwood (the titular I), played by Paul McGann, is the sweeter and not so hopeless of the pair. It has often been said that this film is (writer/director) Bruce Robinson's semi-autobiographical account of the Aquarian age twilight, and it is easy to see given the level of nostalgic detail. I've always assumed, given the film's title, that indeed Marwood is Robinson, adding yet another layer of pathos.
While I am generally not a big fan of those quotable type of movies - the ones one sees and endlessly recycles the dialogue with one's pals, that being the ultimate point of it. I am, however, guilty of this with some films - the ones I call the "cool quotables," that I find myself endlessly watching, endlessly quoting, etc. The esteemed titles on this list include Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon, Annie Hall, Blazing Saddles, Spinal Tap and this present gem. Witness: "I've some extremely distressing news...we just ran out of wine," "I demand to have some booze!," "I assure you I'm not, officer. Honestly. I've only had a few ales," "We want the finest wines available to humanity. And we want them here, and we want them now!"...and those are just the ones about drinking.
The next time you hear someone shout “don't threaten me with a dead fish!” across a crowded room, you'll know what it's all about.
Withnail & I is the archetypal British cult film, one ripe for discovery here in the States, if for nothing else than a view of England you won't get to see anywhere else.
- Ben S.

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