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Withnail & I
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Withnail & I

A sleeper that has become a cult favorite, Withnail & I (1987) unfolds in 1969 in the dreary London apartment occupied by two out of work actors Withnail (Richard E. Grant) and Marwood (Paul McGann). Terminally broke and often drunk as much to fight the cold as to combat depression, the roommates decide to escape their misery with a visit to the Penrith countryside. Withnail's wealthy Uncle Monty (Richard Griffiths) loans the pair what they imagine is a plush getaway. Instead, they find themselves stranded in a crumbling cottage in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by hostile locals and punishing weather, in no better circumstance than their London misery. Withnail wails to the locals that the pair have 'taken a holiday by mistake.' To complicate matters, Uncle Monty arrives at the cottage with a welcome load of provisions but a less welcome twinkle in his eye for Marwood who panics at his amorous advances.

The enduring appeal of Withnail & I has been attributed to numerous things: Grant's debauched, drink-obsessed aristocrat, the bizarre and hilarious characters the men encounter, from a London drug dealer (Ralph Brown) to a Penrith poacher Jake (Michael Elphick), the rambling, druggy-rhythm of director/writer Bruce Robinson's script and a countercultural vibe enhanced by a movie poster designed by Hunter S. Thompson's illustrator Ralph Steadman.

The acid-tongued dipsomaniac Withnail was based on director Bruce Robinson's actor friend Vivian Mackerall. "Without Viv, this story could never have been written," Robinson observed in an essay for the Overlook Press screenplay of Withnail & I. Mackerall lived with Robinson in a Camden Town, London townhouse during the Sixties when both were students at the Central School of Speech and Drama. Mackerall eventually died of throat cancer. Uncle Monty was based on Robinson's run-ins with a reputedly randy Franco Zeffirelli during the making of Romeo and Juliet (1968) in which Robinson played Benvolio. Despite his early career as an actor - he was featured in Ken Russell's The Music Lovers (1970) and played the male lead in Francois Truffaut's The Story of Adele H. (1975) - Robinson was frustrated with the profession (the constant rejections and scarcity of good roles) and turned to writing and directing.

As a director, however, Robinson has never quite matched the iconoclastic standard set with his debut Withnail & I despite going on to make another critically acclaimed black comedy, How to Get Ahead in Advertising (1989), which also starred Richard E. Grant. Some of Robinson's highest accolades have actually been for his scripts. His screenplay for The Killing Fields (1984) was nominated for an Academy Award and his other screenplays include the thrillers Jennifer 8 (1992) and In Dreams (1999).

Prior to the filming of Withnail & I Grant was a confirmed teetotaler but Robinson reportedly decided that in order to play the alcoholic Withnail realistically, he would have to experience drunkenness. In keeping with the film's emphasis on immoderate drinking - and testament to its popularity among students - a drinking game has arisen around the film, in which participants drink along each time Withnail has an ale, glass of liquor, glass of sherry or chug of lighter fluid.

Variety called Withnail & I 'brutal and clever' on its original 1987 release. For the most part, though, the film was overlooked due to poor distribution. British film critic Peter Bradshaw writing in the Guardian newspaper in 2007 calls it a 'masterpiece' while his colleague Xan Brooks called it 'one of the most iconic British movies of the 1980s." Empire magazine ranked the film #18 on its 50 Greatest Independent Films list.

Though certain continuity errors afflicted the production, like a sign for the M25 highway that was not completed until the Eighties, the small glitches in Robinson's low-budget coming-of-age comedy have largely been eclipsed by Withnail & I's indie reputation.

Director: Bruce Robinson
Producer: Paul M. Heller, George Harrison, Denis O'Brien
Screenplay: Bruce Robinson
Cinematography: Peter Hannan
Production Design: Michael Pickwoad
Music: David Dundas, Rick Wentworth
Cast: Richard E. Grant (Withnail), Paul McGann (Marwood), Richard Griffiths (Monty), Ralph Brown (Danny), Michael Elphick (Jake), Daragh O'Malley (Irishman).
C-107m. Letterboxed. <

by Felicia Feaster

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