Director: Bruce Robinson
Cast: Richard E. Grant, Paul McGann, Richard Griffith. Ralph Brown
My interest in Bruce Robinson’s Withnail and I came because Bruce Robinson (the films director) was recently in Puerto Rico filming The Rum Diary, a film which I am eagerly looking forward to not only because it was filmed in Puerto Rico (my country) but also because it’s based on Hunter S. Thompson’s novel of the same name, and I love that novel. It is partially based on Hunter S. Thompson’s own experiences while living in Puerto Rico and writing for a now defunct local newspaper called ‘The San Juan Star’. Robinson’s Withnail and I is a film that has that same whacked out, ‘grim and dark’ world perspective, it has that bleak sense of humor that we’ve come to expect from all things Hunter S. Thompson. Actually, it was the bleak sensibilities of Withnail and I that got Johnny Depp to ask Robinson to write the script for Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998). Robinson declined writing that script because he didn’t know how to adapt that novel into a film; I’m guessing he thought the book was too incoherent to be adapted into a film, he wasn’t the first to think that way. But the fact remained in Johnny Depp’s mind that Robinson was a guy who ‘got’ what Hunter S. Thompson was all about. So of course, it came as no surprise to me when Bruce Robinson ended up directing The Rum Diary, a film based on Thompson’s own life. The Rum Diary also stars Johnny Depp, yet another great fan and close friend of Thompson’s life and work. These are the reasons why I can’t wait to see The Rum Diary, it will be a film made by people who really understood who Hunter S. Thompson was, they really got how his brain worked. And it’s Robinson’s involvement in that film that got me interested in exploring the rest of his filmography starting with the film I’ll be reviewing today: Withnail and I.
Withnail and I tells the story of two aspiring actors Withnail and Mawood (a.k.a. "I") two guys living in extremely poor conditions in a horribly disorganized filthy flat in Camden Town, London, 1969. These guys live in such a shit hole that they actually find "matter" inside of their kitchen sink, beneath piles and piles of dishes that haven’t been washed since forever! They suspect rodents living inside of the oven. They get visited by drug dealers and dead beats. This lifestyle of theirs isn’t meant to go on forever, this is the in-between before they make it to the big time. You see, they are both waiting for the proverbial "big break". In real life terms that means they are waiting for their respective agents to get them a part in something, anything! Unfortunately, nothing seems to be popping up at the moment in terms of acting and living in filth and poverty is getting to them; so much so that they begin to feel physically ill! In a desperate attempt to get away from the grime, they get this idea in their heads that a weekend in the countryside will clear their heads up and charge their batteries, so they can continue their struggles in life. So they go up to Withnail’s Uncle Monty to ask him for permission to stay at his country cottage. After lots of ass kissing, Uncle Monty finally says yes and off they go to the country side. Will the country side be all the hope it will be?
I don’t know how many of you guys and gals out there are city dwellers, but after a while living in the city can get to you. The cars and their exhaust, building on top of buildings, the never ending cement and pavement, the noise pollution, the drunks, the drug addicts, the people…you name it, in the city, there’s always a huge assortment of things that can drive you nuts. After a while, your body and mind will ask you to please, escape somewhere with clean oxygen and trees and nature. After a couple of years of living amongst buildings, you’ll yearn for nature. This is what happens to Withnail and Marwood. On top of all of this, they live in poverty, always surviving with the least of things, food being a rare commodity. To alleviate the pain of being poor and living under these inhuman conditions, they consume huge amounts of alcohol and drugs. Somehow, no matter how poor they are, there’s always money for drugs and alcohol. And if they don’t find it, the go nuts! They need something to help them forget their lives. The first few scenes of this film present us with characters who are desperately looking for some sanity. Their solution is nature. The question then arises: are these two city boys ready for nature?
The answer is a big fat no! I loved how the film portrays these two city guys trying to find sanity amongst nature and then being totally unprepared for it; as if modern living had rendered these two humans completely useless when it comes to depending on themselves for survival. When Withnail and Marwood first arrive to the country side, they are greeted by a thunderous storm, and a house with no light, not comfortable accommodations. They actually have to find wood to start up a fire and dig out potatoes to eat. When it comes to killing their own chicken, they can’t even achieve that properly. I love how the film addressed these issues because it is a question that I commonly ask myself. What if suddenly, for whatever reason, food stopped coming to supermarkets? How would you go about getting your food? People in the city don’t have time to grow their own food. Millions rely on the supermarket having everything they need to survive. What if you were suddenly faced with having to take a chicken, kill it, take off all its feathers, gut it and chopping off it’s head and legs? How about beef? No one knows how to go about killing a cow and slicing off a proper cut to eat! Hell, no one has cows in their homes! People are used to getting their meat neatly packaged at the supermarket. If people were to suddenly get cut off from that for whatever the reason, it would be a complete disaster, it would be chaos! City people are so used to having everything done for them; I found it interesting how the film addresses these issues.
The story behind this film is that its partially based on Bruce Robinson’s own life experiences, living in the 60’s, in Camden, trying to make it as an actor. Actually, the script was based on Robinson’s unpublished novel of the same name. so the film is a collection of all these experiences he and his friends had trying to make it in the entertainment world. Robinson is an actor himself (this often times makes for some great directors) and by that point he’d appeared in various films including Ken Russell’s The Music Lovers (1970) and Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet (1968). But since he wasn’t making much money between each film, he decided to take up writing; many great directors have gone down this exact same route. One that comes to mind is Vittorio de Sica an actor who decided to get into directing and ended up making The Bicycle Thieves (1948), one of the greatest films ever made. Withnail and I is considered one of the best British Films ever made itself, in fact, its considered one of the best British cult films out there. Some of the best films have a genuine feel to them, in the case of Withnail and I its realism stems from the fact that many of the characters in the film are based on Robinson’s own friends and acquaintances. For example, Uncle Monty, (Withnails gay uncle) who tries to seduce Marwood in a couple of hilarious scenes was partially based on Italian director Franco Zeffirelly who was constantly hitting on Robinson during the production of Romeo and Juliet. Many of Zefirrelly’s pick up lines were incorporated into Uncle Monty’s dialog. So it’s that kind of a film where the situations feel real, what makes it special though is that pitch black humor the film has!
Speaking of the films humor, it’s awesome. I mean, I had never seen this film before, but I’m sure I’ll be watching it a couple more times because the dialog is simply brilliant. It’s the kind of film you’ll be quoting from for years and years. My favorite line is when Withnail and Marwood enter this restaurant filled with conservatives and they sit on a table (obviously drunk) and say: "We want the finest wines available to humanity! And we want the now!" I mean, seriously? I think the dialog and situations are the real stars of the show. These characters come off as totally whacked out of their minds! They’ve been cooked up in their apartments for so long that they are becoming ill, so much so that at one point, Marwood says: "I don’t feel good. Oh my God. My hearts beating like a fucked clock! I feel dreadful!" and Withnail replies: "So does everybody. Look at my tongue! It’s wearing a yellow sock!" Those first few moments when they are going paranoid are awesome, on top of everything they have this friend who is a drug dealer played by Ralph Brown (who is pure genius on this movie by the way) he’ll have you cracking up with every single word he says! At one point he tells Withnail: "You have done something to your brain, you’ve made it high. If I lay you 10 mil of diazepam on you, it will do something else to your brain, it will make it low. Why trust one drug and not another? That’s politics isn’t it?" This dude was so hilarious on this movie that he was asked to play practically the exact same character in Wayne’s World 2 (1993)! In that one he plays Del Preston, the guy who had to find 10,000 brown M&M’s or Ozzy wouldn’t play! So as you can see, I totally dug the dialog in this movie, it’s got a lot of dark dark humor in it, if you appreciate that sort of thing, you’ll love this movie.
"We want the finest wines available to humanity, and we want them now!"
Currently, Robinson has said that he feels the film was badly shot and illuminated, but that it makes up for its technical faults with its great dialog. I don’t agree so much with that sentiment, I mean, yeah Robinson was making his first film. He even told the cast and crew that he didn’t know what he was doing, this was his first time as a director and that he was going to be making mistakes as they went along. That’s understandable, and I love the humility displayed in those comments, but I’m not so sure I agree with the part that it was badly shot and illuminated, I actually loved the way the film looks. The film looks so grey and dark that it fits the characters persona’s perfectly! These are not happy people! These people hate their lives, they want to improve desperately but don’t know how to go about it, and so that bleak look the film has fits it perfectly. Plus, it rains for 90% of the picture, which makes everything all the messier! Well, I’ve gone on long enough about this one. Basically, this is a film filled with biting, sarcastic, intelligent, black humor. It’s one of the most important British cult films ever made. If you like that acid, biting humor you find in Hunter S. Thompsons books and films, you’ll love this one for sure. Highly recommend it for a night of dark humor with a brain.
Rating: 5 out of 5