Monday, May 25, 2009

Withnail and I

Playing drunk is, famously, one of the hardest things an actor can do: all too often they simply slur their speech a bit and fall down. If that's true, then Paul McGann and Richard E. Grant are the finest actors of their generation. For just about the entirety of Withnail and I, the leads stumble about in various degrees of inebriation (McGann far less so than Grant), and somehow by the end of it they personify the end of the '60s and its effect on those who didn't know where to go from there.

The "I" in question is Marwood (McGann), who lives with Withnail (Grant) in a squalid flat in London. Unemployed actors both, the only time of the day they do not spend drinking is when they collect their Social Security -- ostensibly to pay for their drinks. As the filth builds around the addled roommates, Withnail, the more impulsive of the two, decides a change of scenery is in order, presumably to introduce new splotches of color into their blurred vision. Withnail, who constantly rails against the injustices of the world despite his affluent background, rings up his rich uncle Monty (Richard Griffiths) to fund their expedition. To ensure Monty, a homosexual, will let them use his village cottage, Withnail informs his uncle that his strapping young flatmate is a "toilet trader." A winking Monty steals a sly glance or two and sends the men to Chelsea to enjoy themselves.

The rest of the film stems from the pair's misadventures as they drive to their vacation and settle in for the season. Grant's performance is the very definition of tour-de-force: Withnail is never sober, only less drunk than normal. He spouts nonsense and Shakespeare recitations in his drunken rages, and a good chunk of his lines should be memorized by any American trying to avoid looking like just another tourist in England. "Warm up? We might as well sit round this cigarette." "We've gone on holiday by mistake." "I deny all accusations." He's a punk rocker without the punk to give him a sense of belonging, so he tries to drown his frustrations in booze. But Marwood is no straight man: he trades barbs confidently with Withnail, and he's no more active. Yet he's clearly maturing more quickly than his friend, even if he's not approaching anything like maturity.

Their holiday retreat soon turns into a disaster. They arrive to a dusty, poorly-insulated cottage in the middle of a bitter cold. The locals spurn the lads and only sell them some food and necessities to get rid of them. And things manage to get even worse when a lovestruck Monty shows up attempting to win young Marwood's love. Marwood lets the poor man down gently by "explaining" that he and Withnail are involved, and the situation begins to break Marwood of his closeness to Withnail. You can tell the two are drifting when Marwood rushes straight from his awkward encounter to his friend's bedroom to announce his decision to return to London, and Withnail is so plastered that it barely registers.

When they separate at the end, with Marwood winning the lead part of a play, their final moment plays as a clear depiction of the end of the '60s. Marwood seems to be freeing himself from his rut, finding a job and lessening his alcoholism, while Withnail remains on the track to becoming Britain's first punk, a man who has nothing to cling to despite being relatively well-off. It's a moment of poignancy in no way spoiled by Withnail's subsequent monologuing Hamlet to a pack of wolves in a zoo, a moment that underscores Withnail and I's capacity to mix highbrow comedy, farce and tragedy into a seamless whole. Writer-director Bruce Robinson draws from his own experiences for the film, but he never gives in to the wistfulness nor the bitterness of nostalgia; instead, he allows his camera to capture the two friends without judgment. The '60s wasn't all acid and love-ins, and Withnail and I is just about the best portrait I've seen of the flip side of the coin.

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