Posts Tagged ‘Richard Griffiths’

From the Hootoo archive. Originally published July 1st 2004:

Hello again everyone. You might be interested to know (but, let’s face it, probably aren’t) that as I write Timmy Henman is still in Wimbledon and England are still in Euro 2004 – which, barring some fairly unlikely results, is a dead giveaway of the fact that this column was written some time ago. This is because I rather unexpectedly find myself on holiday in the wilds of Hampshire this week, and thus unable to perform my usual reviewerly duties.

However, rather than selfishly deprive you all whilst I whoop it up in Winchester, I thought this would be a nice opportunity for one of our irregular quasi-topical golden oldie features. The British film industry has a long tradition of making comedy films about holidays – Carry On Camping and the big-screen Are You Being Served? to name but two of them. Relax, though, as an in-depth examination of Mrs Slocumbe and her famous pet is not imminent. The only British comedy to truly capture the genuine misery and despair of a country holiday is, of course, Bruce Robinson’s Withnail & I.

It’s a bit of a shocker for those of us who revere this film to realise that more years separate the present day from the year it was made, than separate the film itself from the year it is set. (Hmm, that was a bit confusing, so just to elucidate: Withnail was made eighteen years ago, in 1986, but it’s set seventeen years before that, in 1969.) This is traditionally the point at which I try to summarise the plot, but the thing about Withnail & I is that it only has the barest rudiments of one. It’s a bit like Lost in Translation in that respect – albeit set in the Lake District, lacking a single significant female character, and with a lot more effing and drinking and attempted homosexual rape. It’s basically just a week in the lives of (ahem) resting actors Withnail (Swaziland’s leading pantomime dame, Richard E Grant) and Marwood (Paul McGann). Tiring of their squalid Camden Town flat, and running very low on alcohol, they decide to go to the countryside to rejuvenate. Appropriating the key of a country cottage belonging to Withnail’s demented Uncle Monty (grotesque-uncle specialist Richard Griffiths), off they go to the Lake District, where Withnail’s remarkable ability to hack off virtually everyone they meet is even less welcome than usual. And this is before Uncle Monty pops up to join them, having taken something of a shine to Marwood…

On the face of it Withnail & I is a fairly strange candidate for beloved cult-movie status, given that not a huge amount happens, it was clearly made on a very tiny budget, and the script, locations and atmosphere conspire to give it one of the grimmest atmospheres imaginable, evoking the hangover after the excesses of the first summer of love. The sun barely seems to shine, filth and squalor abound, Marwood is the only even vaguely sympathetic character for most of the film (probably because he’s Bruce Robinson’s version of himself), and if the story has a theme it’s one of desperation and refusal to engage with reality.

But what makes the film the work of brilliance that it is is the way that the characters respond to their dreadful surroundings – mainly by getting drunk a lot, but more importantly by coming out with scabrously witty and very quotable dialogue. (It should also be pointed out that, even by modern standards, this is startlingly foul-mouthed for a British comedy.) It’s the kind of stuff that on paper doesn’t look all that impressive, but is made irresistible by the performances. (The drinking is very popular too in certain circles, inspiring – of course – the Withnail & I drinking game, where the contestants attempt to match the intake of our heroes while watching the movie. The purist’s version of this game involves swigging half a can of lighter fluid quite early on, which we at the Post obviously don’t recommend. Stick to meths, it gets you trolleyed quicker.)

It’s plain that Bruce Robinson is first and foremost a writer, as his direction is not really anything special, doing just enough to support the script. Withnail started life as a semi-autobiographical novel about Robinson’s own flat-sharing experiences in the sixties – quite how closely based on reality the film is is a bit unclear, but it was obviously a personal project for the director, who paid the music clearance fees for the two Jimi Hendrix tracks used in the film himself. Robinson’s career beyond Withnail has always been a bit erratic, and the film itself probably owes its existence to George Harrison’s desire to make interesting films rather than profitable ones (Harrison’s company HandMade Films produced Withnail). Rather appropriately for a film so rooted in the 1960s, Harrison’s old colleague Ringo also got involved in the production – but the credits are rather coy about what exactly his contribution was, simply listing him (under his real name) as a ‘Special Production Consultant’.

Robinson either showed great discernment or enormous good fortune in snagging a cast just starting out on the road to fame and fortune. Both Richard E Grant and Paul McGann have had their brushes with greatness in the course of their careers, but this still must rank amongst their best work (I would say that Grant’s never since been as good as he is here, but then I am famously immune to his rather limited charms). Richard Griffiths is alarmingly credible as Uncle Monty – a rather more nuanced and flamboyant performance than his work as Uncle Vernon in the Harry Potter films, but then this is a rather different character (luckily for Daniel Radcliffe). The only other character with more than a couple of lines is Danny, our heroes’ rather frazzled dealer, played by Ralph Brown in the style of a demonic Keith Richards.

It’s been suggested that you have to be British in order to really ‘get’ Withnail & I. I would go further and say you have to be a rather particular type of Brit: young, male, educated, ever-so-slightly-posh, and a little bit of a poseur. This is a film you watch over and over again just so you can recite the choicest bits of dialogue with fellow aficionados while getting wellied. And of course there’s nothing really wrong with that. In many way this is probably the cinematic equivalent of an album by Morrissey – as specialised a taste, as heartfelt, witty, and as transcendently miserable. It may not be terribly big, but it is quite clever.

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