'Withnail & I' is probably the definition of a 'cult' film. By this, you could say that a cult film is one where, the first time you watch it, you're not quite sure why everybody raves about it. But it's watchable and you'll probably try to catch it again someday. But then, something about it nags at you and you watch it again, this time noticing little quirks and lines of dialogue that really stick with you. And then you start to watch it regularly, simply because it offers up something new each time, and you get hooked on it. Now, THAT is a cult movie, and that is the beauty of 'Withnail & I'.
Camden, London, 1968. Withnail (Richard E Grant) and his best friend and flatmate, the unnamed 'I' of the film (Paul McGann) are struggling actors on the point of destitution. Their flat looks ready to be condemned and this isn't helped by the fact that Withnail is a full-blown, self-destructive alcoholic and I is seemingly only a few steps behind. To escape their predicament, they escape to the desolate countryside of Penrith and take a holiday, using the crumbling cottage of Withnail's uncle Monty, a raging homosexual who takes an immense fancy to I. Then, they come home again.
And that's it. There's no farcical, convoluted plot of mistaken identities or any other cliche of the comedy genre, it's simply a film that hangs out with the two lead characters and gets its jokes from there. Even the sub-plot of Monty's crush on I, which would be huge running joke in lesser comedies, is more of a throwaway couple of jokes.
Instead, writer/director Bruce Robinson, offers up a British comedy that has a unique place in a lot of people's hearts and is a different world to the London and England of Richard Curtis and Hugh Grant. There's no sunny, panoramic views of London or the countryside, no nice, suburban, middle-classe homes to rest our eyes upon, but a vivid and seedy slice of life. Withnail's flat is truly a disgusting hovel, with the kitchen simply buried under months of uncleaned crockery, and I reduced to drinking coffee with a spoon from a bowl, while Withnail smears his body with Deep Heat to try and stave off the biting cold. Naturally, they have no heating or money. And even their trip to the countryside is ruined by the constant downpour.
Think of it as the film equivalent of Oscar Wilde's famous quote: "We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars."
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