Withnail & I is a throbbing hangover, the dirty, disgusting apartment you wake up to on a Sunday morning in your youth. It’s a cult classic in many senses — made cheaply by relative newbies to the craft, stemming from personal life experiences, not expected to become much of anything until the actors and director were having their own dialogue screamed back at them in the streets by superfans (all phenomenon explored charmingly and endearingly in the short making-of 1999 documentary “Withnail and Us”). Withnail & I is a film that feels completely of its own, even thirty-five years later. It’s hard to place what is so appealing about it, only really funny in a grim, cynical way. The story of two struggling actors in 1969, roommates Withnail (Richard E. Grant) and Marwood (Paul McGann) — the latter of which only has a name in the screenplay but is unnamed in the film and described as only “& I” in the film’s credits. These two men are pushing thirty, fixated more on their next drink than anything else, yet still holding onto dreams of sudden and immediate success in their field, tied to delusions of grandeur.
Our protagonists are almost caricatures of an overstimulated and exhausted youth. Vivid, purple circles are perennially under their eyes. They live off so little money they have to re-glue the soles of their shoes and huddle around their radiator, naked bodies covered in Deep Heat, to stay warm. Washing their dishes pushes them into a spiraling meltdown. They are self-serving and self-centered. Their friends are young people with highly specific and often nonsensical political views. Marwood’s refusal to continue to get high from a massive blunt after it triggers a panic attack is deemed by their local dealer, Danny (Ralph Brown), as “an unfortunate political decision reflecting these times” — whatever that means.
Withnail, Marwood, and the few fellow young people they surround themselves with contain a mix of dread and fantasy that is perhaps unique solely to those that are both young and self-centered. They are certain that they personally are the next great actor or thinker or toy creator. They all irritate each other without care. And like most every youth culture coming into adulthood, especially during a shift in decades, the group is certain they just missed out on the best of times, failed to succeed in their mission of shaking shit up on their own, radical terms.
Withnail and Marwood often seem to almost take pleasure in perpetuating their own bitter, miserable life outlooks — with Marwood as the more panicky of the two, and Withnail as the more solidly cynical. Together, the duo ensures that they see everything as terribly as possible, tied by the belief that the world as it stands is a terrible place to live. Marwood thinks it, often in spiraling voiceover, and Withnail speaks it aloud. In the opening moments, Marwood reads the news in a greasy spoon diner, seeing in the headlines only the utmost horrors of this world (“Murder, allbran, and rape”, he monologues about his breakfast). He rushes home to his filthy, freezing apartment, trying to escape his existential dread, only to be bombarded by Withnail’s own deep ennui, as he reads aloud the same news stories that filled Marwood with such horror only moments ago.
Withnail & I is also, in many senses, a queer movie, though not necessarily a kind, loving, or affectionate one. Our only openly gay character, Withnail’s ultra-wealthy Uncle Monty (Richard Griffiths), is bordering on offensive in his portrayal. Predatory in his lusting after the young, handsome, and vulnerable Marwood, when Monty officially comes onto the young man in the dead of night, he does so in a full face of poorly-applied make-up — a loaded collection of gay stereotypes. Marwood is horrified of Monty’s openness, just as he’s horrified of being perceived as gay himself— he blanches at homoerotic graffiti in the loo, sweats when he’s called a slur in a pub, is terrified of being touched by Monty.
And yet the story feels, especially on rewatches, especially once one settles into the grim and funny world of the film, like a love story. A certain something pulses through Marwood and Withnail’s relationship. A willingness to put up with each other’s incredible bullshit, to live in filth and destruction together, to bicker through it. When they convince Uncle Monty to let them use his cottage out in a rural village for a vacation — still believing in the fantasy of the potential salvation of some fresh air and a day or two away from the soul-sucking city to completely turn your life around — they live like a little domestic couple. It’s all a big farce — they cook a chicken with the feathers still on, make fire out of expensive furniture when they can’t find wood to burn — but it’s a domesticity that matches their weird and wonderful relationship. It just always feels like the two are on the precipice of something more, like a different outcome could occur from their adventures, their road trips, their sharing of a bed when frightened by noises one night. In fact, this palpable chemistry, this distinct connection, saves Marwood from Monty’s various sexual passes. When Marwood desperately lies and claims that he and Withnail are in love, Monty backs off in regret and shame, believing him entirely.
This certain chemistry, this bubbling special something, is what makes the end of Withnail & I strangely heartbreaking. The bitter mindset that they share and stoke in one another is unsustainable, only possible when both men are consistently failing. What tears them apart is a whiff of success, an adult and stable light at the end of the tunnel; Marwood finally lands a role, a big one, and Withnail does not. The pettiness and bitterness that tied them is what tears them apart. Where nothing matters to Withnail (he laughs and laughs when they get their eviction notice, is ready to keep drinking and drugging and melting down for pleasure), Marwood can’t help but feel like things are starting to matter, that he has to move and become an adult immediately upon getting the good news about his lead role.
Withnail and Marwood’s final moments are spent walking in the miserable, pouring rain. Marwood insists that Withnail not walk him all the way to the station, maybe because of the rain, maybe he craves a clean break. Their final moments are the sweetest so far. A touch on the shoulder from Marwood, “I shall miss you, Withnail,” he murmurs.
“I shall miss you, too,” Withnail replies, taking a swig from the bottle of red wine he brought for the walk. It’s some of the nicest things they say to each other in the whole film, which makes it so terrible to hear. There’s a finality. It’s only then I realize that the perverse delight of Withnail & I is to watch the two of them indulge in some bitter, delicious cynicism together, to see them walk in tandem on the youthful tightrope between delusional hope and giving up, and to work so hard to appear adult, miserable, and in-the-know while doing it, despite being young people with no clue what’s going on, no one to hold onto but each other in their own twisted way.
Withnail & I was released on June 19, 1987 by Cineplex Odeon Films. It is currently streaming on HBO Max or rent/buy on Amazon Prime.