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Withnail and I
Withnail and I is a British film made in 1986 by Handmade Films. Written and directed by Bruce Robinson, it is based on his life in London in the late 1960s.
The main plot follows two struggling unemployed young actors, Withnail (Richard E. Grant) and “I” (Paul McGann) who live in a squalid flat in London in 1969 while waiting for their careers to take off. Needing a holiday, they obtain the key to the country cottage near Shap belonging to Withnail’s flamboyantly gay uncle Monty and drive there. The holiday is less ‘recuperative’ than they expected, and tests their friendship. They return to London and “I” moves on, while Withnail does not.
The role of Withnail was Grant's first in film and launched him into a successful career. The film also featured performances by Richard Griffiths as Withnail's Uncle Monty and Ralph Brown as Danny the drug dealer.
The film has tragic and comic elements (particularly farce), and is notable for its period music and many quotable lines. It has been described as "one of Britain's biggest cult films".
The film depicts the lives and misadventures of two "resting" (struggling and unemployed) young actors in 1969 London. They are the flamboyant alcoholic Withnail (Grant); and "I" (named "Marwood" in the published screenplay but not in the credits, played by McGann), his more level-headed, anxiety-prone friend and the movie's narrator.
Withnail is filled with indignation over life's injustices, despite his privileged background. He rages against the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune all the more because he blames others for the adverse consequences of his exuberant arrogance and outrageous deceits.
Withnail sets the tone for the friendship, with Marwood going along with whatever Withnail wants to do. They live in a filthy Georgian flat in Camden Town. While they wait for a part, daily life revolves around getting coins to use in the meters that provide gas or electricity, going to collect Social Security payments, and waiting for the pubs to open so they can sit somewhere warm.
The film begins with Marwood smoking a joint in the darkened flat. When he has finished he goes to a café and reads disturbing articles in a newspaper. He then returns to the flat, Danny, a friend and drug dealer, turns up and informs them of his new toy-making business, showing them a doll, the head of which comes off to reveal hidden poppers.
Needing a change of scene, Withnail and Marwood decide to take a recuperative holiday in the Lake District. Withnail secures the loan of the country cottage at Wet Sleddale belonging to his Uncle Monty (Griffiths). Monty is an old boy of Harrow School, and it is suggested that Withnail is one too. Monty is told that Marwood went to "the other place" (Eton). Monty is an aesthete nostalgic for a by-gone age of beauty and poetic friendship among young men, and, fancying himself an actor, is fond of quoting Charles Baudelaire and reciting passages from Hamlet. He has a pet cat which constantly irritates him.
Withnail and Marwood get into Marwood's battered Jaguar Mark 2, which is parked next to a scene of demolition of some old houses (significant for the time period) and set off along the motorway. The holiday doesn't quite go according to plan: although the valley of Wet Sleddale is beautiful, the weather is cold and often inclement, the farm cottage is run-down and dusty, they have little food or supplies and the locals are surly and unwelcoming - in particular a threatening poacher, Jake (Michael Elphick), whom Withnail offends. Then an intruder breaks into the cottage in the middle of the night. Withnail and Marwood are terrified, believing that the intruder is Jake. Comically, the intruder turns out to be Monty, who has been stranded for "aeons" with a punctured tyre. They greet Monty with mixed emotions. Monty brings them ample supplies of food and wine, but it soon becomes clear that;– having been falsely told by Withnail that Marwood is homosexual;– he has designs on Marwood and will not be deterred by politeness. In a farcical scene of bedroom-switching, Monty eventually corners Marwood, bursting into his room and proclaiming his desire to "have [him] even if it must be burglary." Terrified, Marwood manages to stave off Monty's overtures with the excuse that he has a permanent relationship with Withnail that he is afraid to reveal. Monty, who believes in love and loyalty, accepts this excuse as the whole truth and apologizes for coming between them.
Rebuffed, Monty leaves the cottage in the night for London. The next morning, Marwood finds Monty's gracious and generous note of apology and reads it aloud. Despite having endured Monty's advances, Marwood feels sympathy for him. Withnail, who is eagerly drinking Monty's fine wine, takes no responsibility for the emotional chaos he has caused. For the first time Marwood seems to distance himself from Withnail's exploitation of other people. Then Marwood receives a telegram that confirms that he has an audition for a part, and he insists that they go back to London immediately.
After adventures on the motorway, the film returns to the Camden Town flat, to find a man lying in their bath. Danny, who is squatting at the flat, opines that the oncoming end of the 1960s is the end of the "greatest decade in the history of mankind" and that "there are going to be a lot of refugees." The three, and Danny's friend Presuming Ed (the man in the bath), get high smoking a "Camberwell carrot" (cannabis joint).
Marwood calls his agent and discovers that the production company now want him to play the lead part in the play. He gets his curly hair cut short, packs his bags, and prepares to leave for the train station for what he hopes is a new and more mature phase of his life. He wants to leave by himself, but Withnail insists upon accompanying him at least part of the way, while drinking from a bottle of Monty's wine; "'53 Margaux, best of the century."
Marwood leaves Withnail in the rain in Regent's Park. There, for the first time, Withnail sincerely reveals himself, declaiming "What a piece of work is a man!" from Act 2 Scene ii of Hamlet to an uncomprehending pack of wolves behind a fence in the adjoining London Zoo. Then, the camera remains still as he turns and walks further and further away into the distance, swinging the bottle, as the credits start to roll.
The film is an adaptation of an unpublished novel written by Robinson in the winter of 1969. Actor friend Don Hawkins passed a copy of the manuscript to his friend the wealthy oil heir Moderick Schreiber in 1980. Schreiber, looking to break into the movie industry, paid Robinson a few thousand pounds to adapt it into a screenplay, which Robinson did in the early 1980s. On completing the script, producer Paul Heller urged Robinson to direct it and found funding for half the film. The script was then passed to Handmade Films and after George Harrison read it agreed to fund the remainder of the film.
Robinson's script is largely autobiographical. Marwood is Robinson; Withnail is based on Vivian MacKerrell, a friend with whom he shared a Camden house, who died young; and Uncle Monty is loosely based on the unwanted attentions he received from an amorous Franco Zeffirelli when he was a young actor. He lived in the impoverished conditions seen in the film and wore plastic bags as wellington boots. Robinson threw four or five years of his real life into the script, condensing them into two weeks.
The narrative is told in the first person by the character played by Paul McGann, named just once in passing in the film (see below) as Marwood, and only credited as "... & I".
Early in the film, Withnail reads from an article headlined "Boy Lands Plum Role For Top Italian Director" and then goes on to imply that the director is sexually abusing the boy. This is a reference to the sexual harassment that Robinson alleges he suffered at the hands of Italian director Franco Zeffirelli when, as a young man, he won the role of Benvolio in Romeo and Juliet.
The end of the novel saw Withnail committing suicide by pouring a bottle of wine into the barrel of Monty's gun and then pulling the trigger as he drank from it. Robinson changed the ending, as he believed it was "too dark."
Denis O'Brien, one of the movie's producers, nearly shut the film down three days into the shoot. He thought that the movie had no "discernible jokes," and was badly lit.
The film cost £1.1 million to make. Robinson received £1 for the script, and £80,000 to direct it, £30,000 of which he reinvested into the film to shoot additional scenes, such as the journeys to and from Penrith, which HandMade Films would not fund.
Paul McGann was Robinson's first choice for "I", but he was fired during rehearsals because Robinson decided McGann's Liverpool accent was wrong for the character. Several other actors read for the role but McGann eventually persuaded Robinson to re-audition him, promising to affect a Home Counties accent. He quickly won back the part.
Actors who were considered for the part of "Withnail" included Daniel Day Lewis, Bill Nighy and Kenneth Branagh. Robinson told Richard E. Grant that "half of you has got to go", and put him on a diet in order to play the part. The role of Withnail was Grant's first in film and launched him into a successful career.
Though playing a raging alcoholic, Grant is a teetotaller, who had never been drunk prior to making the film. Robinson decided that it would be impossible for Grant to play the character without having ever experienced inebriation and a hangover, and thus "forced" the actor on a drinking binge. Grant has stated that he found the experience deeply unpleasant.
During the filming of the scene in which the lighter fluid is consumed, Robinson changed the contents of the can, which had been filled with water, to vinegar. While the vomiting is scripted, the facial expression is purely natural.
Although the first name of 'I' is not stated anywhere in the film, it is widely believed that it is 'Peter'. This myth arose as a result of a line of misheard dialogue in the scene where Monty meets the two actors, Withnail asks him if he would like a drink. In his reply, Monty both accepts his offer and says "...you must tell me all the news, I haven't seen you since you finished your last film". While pouring another drink, and downing his own, Withnail replies that he has been "Rather busy uncle. TV and stuff". Then pointing at Marwood he says "He's just had an audition for rep". Some fans hear this line as "Peter's had an audition for rep", although the original shooting script and all commercially published versions of the script read "he's".
The "I" character's name is given as 'Marwood' in the original screenplay . It has been suggested that it is possible that 'Marwood' can be heard near the beginning of the film: As the characters escape from the Irishman in the Mother Black Cap, Withnail shouts "Get out of my way!". Some hear this line as "Out of the way, Marwood!", although the script reads simply "Get out of my way!".
There is, however, one occasion in the film where the name 'Marwood' is given, though not stated. Toward the end of the film a telegram arrives at Crow Crag and as Withnail reads the note, the name 'Marwood' appears to be visible, upside-down, on the envelope. 'I' is now widely accepted as 'Marwood', as this was the name that was used, in the script of 'Withnail and I', but due to the fact that the story is told from Marwood's point of view, he is considered as 'I'. It should also be considered that in the ending credits and all media in relation to the film the character played by Paul McGann is referenced solely as "...& I."
The film had a domestic gross of £565,112. Its US gross was $1,544,889, giving it a rank of 4,871 for "all time [US] domestic" gross at Boxofficemojo.com. DVD and VHS sales have been quite strong throughout the years, and the film has gained cult status with a number of websites dedicated to the film itself. In 2000, readers of Total Film magazine voted Withnail and I the 3rd greatest comedy film of all time. In 2004 the same magazine named it the 13th greatest British film of all time. Withnail & I was 38th in Channel 4's 100 Greatest Films poll. As of June 13, 2009, the film holds a 96% "fresh" rating, and an average rating of 8.4 out of 10 from critic website Rotten Tomatoes.
In 2007, a digital remastered version of the film was released by the UK Film Council. It was shown at over fifty cinemas around the UK on September 11, as part of the final week of the BBC's "Summer of British Film" season.