At times, I wish I were dead
Busy people dancing all over my head
Real shock value with every move they make
Real bad headache with every step they take
I get a contact buzz
Can’t remember what the problem was
I find it hard to even care
Life was too real until you got there
—Guided By Voices, “Drinker’s Peace”
A slow, boozy solo, sweet and trickling like bourbon honeycombing around ice, wailed from the saxophone of jazz bandleader King Curtis on a sweaty March night in 1971. It happened at San Francisco’s Fillmore West, as he and his band tore through their cover of “A Whiter Shade of Pale.” The song wasn’t his—Procol Harum’s original version, upon initial release, was one of the definitive anthems of the Summer of Love in 1967, representing the apex of 1960s counter-culture optimism and ultimately becoming one of the most successful rock singles in the history of commercial music, before the soggy collapse of that decade’s hopefulness into hell. But at this show, King Curtis attacked the song, drank it in, and delivered a transformative performance in which he took this art of others and made it his own, sinuously finding truths between the notes and reflecting them back at the hungry, raucous, cheering audience.
That night, that performance, would be the staggering climax to his career: after a summer spent recording tracks for John Lennon’s Imagine LP and then touring with Aretha Franklin, his concert album featuring this version of the song, Live at Fillmore West, would be released and chart higher than any of his prior solo discs. And one week after the live album’s release, King Curtis was dead, stabbed to death by two drug dealers outside his Manhattan apartment. It was as if, having given the show of his lifetime, the curtain had to fall.
Some 370 years before King Curtis lay bleeding on the stage of a Manhattan street corner, on the other side of the world and from the stage of the Globe Theatre a honeyed voice cascaded out into the crowd, a cool pour of iambic pentameter from the mouth of actor Richard Burbage, who gave the very first performance as the titular Danish prince in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Though Burbage did not create the role, Shakespeare did base it upon him, and the actor wrenched the character apart, inhabiting the doomed Dane and the multiple layers of the play’s blurry reality at once as he imbued the Bard’s most complex creation with an overwhelming cocktail of humanity, guilt, sorrow, and hope.
Hamlet, believing that his uncle Claudius killed his father, gives a 24/7 performance of madness to hide his suspicions, all while he organizes a play about the murder of a king to flush out Claudius’ guilt. Burbage as Hamlet the Prince as Hamlet the Madman as Hamlet the Director then instructs his acting troupe on “the purpose of playing,” and how it is the performer’s responsibility to rip from themselves and reflect back to their audience truth—just as Hamlet was smuggling truth to the court via his affected madness, just as Burbage was so dizzyingly doing with his portrayal. And after Hamlet gives the performance of his lifetime and defeats Claudius, he is stabbed to death, as if he gave of himself something so powerful that he can no longer share the same space as the stage after such a magical burlesque.
Though he famously played other roles, it was Burbage’s performance as Hamlet that etched his name into theatrical history as the first to play, and define, “the Dane.” His was a style of passion and truth that allowed audiences—still new to the strange idea of plays as entertainment—to suspend disbelief and believe that a story was being spun before their hungry, adulatory eyes. He continued to act until his death in 1619; even then, his performance of Hamlet was spoken of in the hushed tones reserved for the immortal, the impossibly gifted, and the impeccably dignified.
“Why has my head gone numb?! I must have some booze. I demand to have some booze.”
So moans a sinewy, nicotine-thin man whose naked body is greased slick and oozy white in Deep Heat ointment, and is only otherwise covered with an open trench coat, dirty underwear, and a single pink cleaning glove to defend against the permafrost Camden chill that has settled marrow-deep into his flat and his body. He trembles against both the cold and the delirium tremens shuddering throughout his alcohol-dependent nervous system (with an emphasis on “nervous”). This is unemployed London actor Withnail (Richard E. Grant).
“I wouldn’t drink that if I was you.”
So warns the softly handsome man lying prone on the couch beneath a useless blanket, his breath exhaling in cloudy plumes either due to the cold or his cigarettes, as the desperate Withnail proposes chugging a bottle of lighter fluid in lieu of more pleasant spirits. And when Withnail does so—falling to his knees all ointment-anointed and already driven half-mad by the youthful hope of his 20s soon ending, and the mounting dread of his 30s soon coming—he vomits all over the other man’s feet. That other man is his roommate, an unemployed London actor and our narrator, known only to us by his self-referential “I” (Paul McGann).
When Withnail threatens to move on to downing antifreeze, “I” chides him with the mix of queasily ludicrous humor and horror that will define the film to come:
“You bloody fool. You should never mix your drinks!”
This is Withnail and I, a tragically hilarious film that opens with King Curtis’ blistering, career-cementing performance of “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” going so far as to include audio of that live show’s audience and their rapturous applause over the opening credits as “I” awakens to this horribly cold day—the kind of applause wholly unfamiliar to either himself or Withnail, whose stillborn careers have dead-ended in the same squalid, go-nowhere cul-de-sacs as their dwindling 20s, their fraying friendship, and the dying decade that contains them both. It’s late 1969—the so-called cultural revolutions have failed; the hope of youth and the flower-haired, half-naked Summer of Love curdled into bedraggled and sore bodies beneath the gray, sunken-anvil skies of a dreary English Winter of Discontent that harkens the compromises and betrayals, the fears and failures, of the adulthood to come. Everything feels a cruel and ironic joke, including the Italian variant of “cheers” (what’s there to cheer about?) that both men exclaim before each of their endless, endless drinks: “Cin-cin.”
This is Withnail and I, a hilariously tragic film that concludes with one of these men, soul-broken and alone, with the realization that his life will not play out well, that his dreams of being a performer will be no more than that—just dreams—as he drifts drunkenly through London’s Regent’s Park, along the fenceline of a wolf enclosure. There, unseen by any human audience, he delivers a monologue of Hamlet’s, the theater’s most complex and brilliant role, and one he will never, ever be asked to play. He does so with a flawless, wild-eyed, and hungry brilliance that is met only with the applause of pouring rain slapping against the sidewalks of an empty park. From that last gasp of his youthful hope comes the resigned sigh of age as he then walks away from the audience of bored wolves, from the park, from the film, from the world as he’d hoped it to be and the world that truly is, from his friend, his gray suit and gray trench coat and gray umbrella blurring together with the gray latticed bars of the caged fenceline as he walks out into the rain and out of the camera’s focus, until there is no difference between him and the cage itself.
This is Withnail and I. Hilarious, tragic, less a cohesive narrative film and more a series of rowdy and ruddy vignettes—like a series of stumbled stops along a pub crawl—designed to make one laugh until crying, and cry until laughing, in equal, sorrowful, comical measure. Narrated by “I,” the movie plays like a stream-of-conscious memoir as he recounts the purple twilight of his youth and his friendship with Withnail, and the characters and chaos that surrounded that denouement: Withnail’s lecherous, failed actor uncle Monty (Richard Griffiths) lamenting that he was never gifted enough “to play the Dane”; the lysergically laconic drug dealer Danny (Ralph Brown); a village farmer with a busted leg bound in polythene, and the village poacher with an eel hidden down his pants; the pink glove and lighter fluid; the rainy drives, the music on the radio, the endless drinks, the aimless adventures.
It is all the things one remembers about being broke and desperate and just young enough to be hopeful for the future yet terrified that it might not work out, and the last precious moments in which all those feelings were possible in unison, and the best friend at your side who felt exactly the same. And it’s a film about performance, and about friendship, and the gin-blossomed curtain call for the sad performance of a friendship that’s long past its expiration. It is about the loss of youth and innocence by those who are willing to sacrifice both to survive, and by those who are unable to survive being drunkenly torn apart by both.
This is Withnail and “I.”
For a film that locates as its magnetic north a biting, bawdy honesty—honesty in the depiction of its wayward leads and their gang of supporting grotesques; honesty in the portrayal of one’s 20s as a time of freewheeling desolation and terrifying freedom; honesty in the humor and heartsickness that laces the film’s near-Shakespearean linguistic gymnastics of high and low speech—Withnail and I, ironically, ends with a lie writ in legalese:
“The characters and incidents portrayed and the names used herein are fictitious, and any similarity to the name, character or history of any person is entirely coincidental and unintentional.”
“He had this pomposity of the thespian. He was a very smart guy, very bright. But he was sad, too, because he was a jack of all and master of none. He always used to say to me, ‘If I wrote, I’d write a fuck’s sight better than you ever would’…but the fact is, he never did anything. All he ever did was booze.”
Such is how writer-director-former actor Bruce Robinson remembers his now-deceased friend Vivian MacKerrell, with whom he lived when they were both struggling actors in the 1960s, sheltering away in a London household with several other friends, a squalid crater of empty bottles and tubwater-bloated mattresses (the only room for Robinson’s was the bathroom floor) and other forms of lunar debris and transient rubble, as both men threw themselves at whatever pills and drink and smokes made their existence and friendship bearable as they waited for their lives to begin.
And as Shakespeare transformed Burbage into Hamlet, so too did Robinson 20 years later transmogrify MacKerrell from a gleefully ranting, boozing, self-deluded, and lazy scoundrel into a…gleefully ranting, boozing, self-deluded, and lazy scoundrel. Played by Richard E. Grant with a startling, manic-mouthed, and glassy-eyed delirium (Grant, in another irony, had never been drunk before the making of the film; Robinson insisted he spend an evening’s preparation getting blackout drunk so as to have the “chemical memories” necessary for the role), this is Withnail.
As a ballast, Robinson crafted a narrator based upon himself to document MacKerrell-as-Withnail’s increasingly unhinged antics as these two frantic characters find themselves “making an enemy of our own future” with all manner of pressures—age, careers, finances—looming ahead and squeezing the booze from their pores and sanity from their synapses. Anchored by Paul McGann’s by turns icy and increasingly panicked performance (Robinson by no means allows him to be a glowing self-stand-in), this is “I.”
Together, the two men act as invocations of Robinson’s memories of a lost decade of his youth, as well as a filter through which his artistic preoccupations flow; an obvious admirer of Shakespeare, Robinson allows his dual leads to act simultaneously as almost every type of Shakespearean archetype. They are the film’s Tragic Heroes, as well as their own Antagonists; they are both Sad Dupes as well as twinned Fools; they also serve as the film’s Narrator and its Chorus. And it is through the latter archetypes especially that both Withnail and “I” let loose with a verbosity and verbal trickery that verges on Shakespearean, skipping easily within the span of a conversation from dizzily arch and witty observations (“Anyway, I loathe those Russian plays. Always full of women staring out of windows, whining about ducks going to Moscow”) to crudely humorous laments (“I’m in the middle of a bloody overdose! My heart’s beating like a fucked clock!”) to both at once (“Gimme a downer, Danny. My brain’s capsizing, I’ve gone and fucked my brain!”). These rhetorical convolutions reach back and connect these characters to Hamlet himself—a character who, like Withnail, like “I,” can be seen and understood within the words he chooses. And, like Hamlet, what is seen are two men just smart enough to understand the chaos of their situation, but not how to escape it.
Thus, an era that Robinson found to be “a disgusting time to be alive” (a two-to-three-year stretch of the 1960s in which “a lot of drinking was done. A lot of fucking drug-taking was done”) became, after two decades of constant remembrance, condensed in his script to a two-to-three-week expanse. Robinson took the fetid grapes from a freewheeling chunk of his and MacKarrell’s 20s—“broke, starving, and aspiring all at once, and not knowing if it’s gonna work out,” where Robinson eventually found himself suddenly cast in Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet (and spent his time on set hiding from the director, who desperately wanted to fuck him) while MacKerrell continued to sink to the bottom of bottle after bottle—and fermented them into a poignant and rib-rippingly funny memorial to a friend, and to a friendship, that could have only existed at that time and at that place in their lives. Endlessly quotable, fascinatingly plotless, hopelessly poignant, this is Withnail and I.
“Speed is like a dozen transatlantic flights without ever getting off the plane. Time change. You lose, you gain. Makes no difference so long as you keep taking the pills. But sooner or later you’ve got to get out because it’s crashing. And all at once, those frozen hours melt through the nervous system and seep out the pores.”
So bemoans “I,” sunken deep into the bathtub and simultaneously shaving while eating lunch as Withnail angrily shoves a local paper with acting notices (none of which their silent agents have contacted them about) unflushably deep into the toilet and stomps into the living room, where local drug dealer Danny mutters about his money-making scheme to evolve children’s dolls that wet themselves to dolls that shit themselves (“Horrible, really, but they like that, the little girls”). After the morning of Deep Heat and shots of lighter fluid, of “I” hallucinating that “my thumbs have gone weird!” and Withnail convinced that a malevolent greasemonster has generated sentience from within the bombed-out murk of their kitchen sink, after an afternoon in which both men were nearly beaten by a blue-collar drunk at their local bar, after the indignity of another day of no work and more Danny…these musings on speed (both the drug and the rapidity with which Withnail and “I,” their friendship, and this entire fucking decade are careening towards a brick wall) serve as one of the closest storytelling elements the film has in terms of plot.
For in a film that is structured, more or less, like a random assortment of bottles along a bar that eventually lead to an inevitable drunken fade-to-black, the musings of “I” on speed form one of few genuine plot points in the film’s 107-minute running time: an inciting incident. Behind his red-rimmed eyes haloed with John Lennon spectacles, “I” begins to mull the desperately hopeful decision—because everything in Withnail and I is both desperate and hopeful—that befalls all doomed relationships, be they with a friend, a lover, a career, a dream, an age, a decade: perhaps a change of scenery will help. As they both find themselves drifting towards the “arena of the unwell,” “I” suggests that they need time amidst nature, if only Withnail can talk his “raving homosexual” uncle, Monty, into loaning them the key to his cottage.
“It is the most shattering experience of a young man’s life when, one morning, he awakes and quite reasonably says to himself: ‘I will never play the Dane.’ When that moment comes, one’s ambition ceases. Don’t you agree?”
So pontificates Monty, the bloated, boorish uncle who literally and figuratively holds the key to the countryside salvation sought by Withnail and “I.” Before they can achieve it, however, they must sit as a captive audience while he holds court on the decay of his dreams—a decay that, however ludicrous in his clumsy and stubfingered hands, portends the potential ending both of these younger men fear for their story: that it will end before it begins, that neither of them will ever be good enough to truly act—to give a performance that gifts either of them with a future or an immortality to live within, and be seen as worthy of anything other than being the broken sidekick to the other.
Monty failed as an actor in his youth, and now lives trapped by his family’s wealth and utterly alone, without an “I” to tell his story or assuage his emptiness. He serves as both warning and gatekeeper to Withnail and “I”—warning of the potential sad future that a post-1960s life could mean for both of them, as well as a gatekeeper to a refreshed future that a vacation in the country could bring—although both men only see him as a melodramatic bore to be used and forgotten. Their frenzied desperation (that word, again) and hope (again, again, again) to make off with the cottage key leaves them unable to see how Monty will metastasize into a challenge so great that he actually shapes the film’s formless midsection into another of the film’s disparate moments of plot: the crisis that ultimately frays this friendship, and this story, into its final act.
Withnail and “I” make off with Monty’s key and unlock what remains of this film and their lives together—a “holiday by mistake” in which they discover they can remove themselves from the chaos of London, but cannot remove the chaos from themselves. It’s a horror that occurred to Robinson 20 years earlier when MacKerrell returned from a vacation with several bottles of 200-proof liquor, under the influence of which MacKerrell and Robinson spent an evening smashing down a wall in their home with a hammer and an artificial leg—a horror that’s made wildly, hysterically manifest in the film’s journey to come.
“Look at that, look at that. ‘Accident black spot.’ These aren’t accidents. They’re throwing themselves into the road gladly. Throwing themselves into the road to escape all this hideousness. Throw yourself into the road, darling, you haven’t got a chance!”
So shrieks Withnail as he and “I” zoom past a sign warning motorists of dangerous hairpin curves on the road, ‘black spots’ that a driver could lose themselves in and not escape. Cackling with a bottle in one hand as “I” steers them out of London in a 1961 Jaguar (a car born only recently, at the beginning of the decade, but already rustrotted through to its galumphing, asthmatic innards like the ‘60s themselves, armed with only one headlight and one windshield wiper against the storms to come), Withnail taunts Londoners from the window. Refusing to heed “I” and his prophetic warnings of attracting police attention, Withnail declares that if confronted by police, he’ll simply strap one of Danny’s pissing-doll tubes to his “old chap” and let loose with a container of untainted urine, a performance thereby proving his dubious sobriety.
It’s with that rickety sketch of a plan that the two men launch their holiday, and it’s that maddeningly comic tone that will define the misadventure to come. But it is also—like “I” and his need to decompress in the country, like Monty’s need to be adored—what gives the final act of Withnail and I its point upon which the last bit of plot pivots: its tragicomic climax. But before that, before the final swerve into an accident black spot from which there is no return, there is the mistaken holiday of Withnail and “I.”
Withnail and I’s sojourn into Penrith rurality makes up a little more than half of the film’s running time, and, as with so many elements of the film, serves a dual shot-and-chaser purpose. It is the portion of the film in which absolutely nothing happens, and it is the portion of the film in which absolutely everything happens, becoming a crucible in which Withnail and “I” are both, finally, tested as friends and performers.
But first, there is that shot of nothing.
As with any last-ditch change of scenery to save a relationship, the trip to the country begins, ends, and is suffused with the doom of endings—a cacophony of emptiness hilarious to the viewer and heartbreaking to the characters. Following a drive through a torrential downpour with the aforementioned single headlight and wiper, Withnail and “I” find that the cottage has no electricity, no wood for the stove or furnace, no food, and no booze. It is as if the fetid disorder that marks this past-its-expiration-date period of their stagnant lives has gone on too long and can no longer be contained to their flat or escaped from, and has already rooted deep into the cobbled foundations of the cottage and awaits them there.
It’s a nothingness that spreads wild, like how spilt bourbon somehow oozes everywhere within seconds. Desperate (always, always desperate) for food and heat, Withnail and “I” head out into the village, only to find the denizens there just as strangely comic and grotesque as the Dannys and Montys back home. The snobbish prigs at a local restaurant who refuse to tolerate the silly drunkenness of these out-of-town guests; the poacher with a live eel down his pants just as ready to beat the feral pigeonshit from Withnail and “I” as the blue-collar meathead in the bar back home; the strangely oblivious and semi-legless farmer who listens to the howling, rainsoaked complaints of these two men with the diffident disinterest of a bored bartender at last call who knows that a tip isn’t coming. It all spurs the same kind of comic misadventures that shape their lives back home, that strange existential loop that is one’s 20s, exhilarating before dizzying, dizzying before sickening, sickening before requiring a final, definitive blackout.
And then there is the double chaser of everything.
Withnail and I’s trip to the country might be a mistaken holiday in which mostly nothing happens (nothing new, anyway), but it ends with twinned tests in which everything is put on the line for Withnail and “I,” tests that seem to cosmically determine how and if each man is able to proceed forward into their futures, or if they even have them.
The test of “I” comes first: Monty surprises both him and Withnail by crashing their vacation and taking over the cottage. It’s there, in the dampchilled night, that a drunken Withnail blacks out, leaving “I” to fend for himself as Monty lecherously, hungrily begins chasing “I” throughout the cabin. Convinced that “I” is also gay (which Withnail may have hinted at in order to get the cottage’s key from his wayward uncle), Monty outright threatens “I” with rape—“I mean to have you, even if it must be burglary”—in a sequence that mirrors Robinson’s own travails with director Zeffirelli. Nearly savage, for the first time in the film we see that “I” can act, as he weaves together a ferocious—and ferociously funny—performance in which he convinces Monty that he and Withnail are in fact lovers, that the defining pain of his life is that Withnail is closeted and won’t admit their relationship to his family, and that this is the first night in six years that he and Withnail haven’t shared a bed.
Monty, the lone audience for this performance, is visibly shaken—his face softens; the cruel lust that twisted his mouth into a puckered knot of need slacks into a heartbroken and limpid frown, as understanding and emotion flood his features. “I” has moved Monty with this act, literally transforming him from monster back to man with his emotional soliloquy and his power as an actor. He nods, and sends “I” on his way: “You’d better go to him.”
The test of Withnail comes second. “I” is surprised to receive a telegram at the cottage: an actual production wants to see him for an actual part. It is as if tumblers in a cosmic lock were knocked loose by his performance, and “I” has been waived forward, into the future, his career, his adulthood. Stung, Withnail offers to make time and drive them back to London while also quelling his envy with a few bottles at the same time.
And when the inevitable police pullover happens—just as “I” warned it would when they began their trek out of London—Withnail, all heavy lids and slurred speech, far too many vowels leaking from his words, far too many crisscrossed blood vessels lightning-bolting across the whites of his eyes, tries to spin a performance of sobriety for the unimpressed cops. He fails to dazzle them into believing the bottles strewn about the Jag belong solely to “I,” and in a final, deeply unconvincing gambit, suggests that he’s not drunk driving, he’s “only had a few ales.” He falters on this stage of the motorway, and when he refuses to submit to a breathalyzer, he’s arrested. And once at the station, Withnail takes the spotlight for his finale: he’s found by his guards, semi-conscious and smiling on his back, fumbling with Danny’s tubing and geysering the untainted piss all over himself. The cops are unimpressed, and ultimately send him on his way: back to London with a court date as his negative review.
SPECIALTIES OF THE HOUSE
That cosmic lock to life and a future, like the bouncer at a bar, remains unyielding for Withnail, the tragedy of whom is that he will never be capable of change. He is who he is, with all the dignity yet sadness that entails.
That cosmic lock to life and a future, like the bouncer at a bar, waves “I” past, the tragedy of whom is that he is willing to sacrifice and lose his innocence to be capable of change. He will survive, with all the dignity yet sadness that entails.
When the two men return to London, they find that their months of unpaid rent have caught up with them, and eviction is inevitable. Life, and the world, is moving onward, even if one of these men cannot pass the test and move forward with it. It’s a sorrowful ending for such a strange, funny film, but one that feels devastatingly unavoidable, the inescapable hangover that must follow a night full of cocktails and wine and beer and spirits. Just as endings came for MacKerrell and Robinson’s friendship (Robinson went on to be an actor, before writing and directing this, one of the greatest and funniest and truest films in British cinema, while MacKerrell doddered onward into abject alcoholism, and then developed throat cancer so serious that he could no longer eat or drink and thus would intravenously inject alcohol directly into his stomach, before finally dying of pneumonia), so too has the end come for Withnail and “I.” “I” cuts his hair short for the role, literally shearing the youth and 1960s from his body, while Withnail looks more frazzlefucked than ever as he walks his friend across Regent’s Park. “I” must take a train to Manchester for his new play; both men know this will be goodbye.
“I” is icy and distant, unwilling to let Withnail walk him any further to the station; Withnail’s eyes are glassy as always, though not from drink—he’s struggling not to cry. When “I” tells his friend that he will miss him, Withnail can only manage a barely audible “I shall miss you, too.” And then Withnail and I is over, because Withnail and “I” is over, too.
In the film’s final seconds, in an act of friendship that comes as close to a word like “heroic” as art, Withnail, or “I” ever should be allowed, Robinson bestows something miraculous: a performance. Already, Grant’s take on Withnail has galvanized the film; already, his interpretation of Robinson’s words about MacKerrell have truly allowed the film to flower (much as Richard Burbage once did for Shakespeare). But here, in this moment, Robinson grants his friend MacKerrell the one thing MacKerrell could not achieve on his own.
The immortality of a perfect performance.
Withnail, without an in-film audience but viewed by the countless eyes who have and will continue to watch this film, heartbroken by his friend’s absence and the quintessence of dust that is his own future, performs Hamlet’s Act 2, Scene 2 monologue (“What a piece of work is a man!”) alone in the rain. His eyes alight with fire, his smile dancing with agony and mirth, he delivers a performance that Monty never could, that “I” never could—one that stands beside Burbage, to King Curtis, to anyone. In this moment, Withnail and I transforms into something far more poignant than a drinker’s comedy, something far more tragic than an end-of-an-era movie.
In this moment, Robinson gifts MacKerrell-as-Withnail an immortality through Grant’s performance; a drunken, delirious monument to his friend, and their friendship. A drinker’s peace, and the proper farewell that “I” refused Withnail.
It is a final toast to the man who was Robinson’s friend, and to a character who—however irascible—has become ours.
To our friend, Withnail.