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Published on October 14th, 2011 | by Yellow Magpie


Withnail And I Film Review: The Tragicomic Masterpiece


Director: Bruce Robinson.
Cast: Richard E. Grant, Paul McGann and Richard Griffiths.

For a movie to register near the top of many people’s list of favourite films it has to have justifiably received its fair share of plaudits. The 1987 film Withnail and I definitely falls into this category.

The film hinges on the lives of two down-and-out actors struggling to survive on social welfare. With no money, no heating and no food, Withnail and Marwood have become desperate. In a fit of inspiration, they decide that Withnail’s uncle, Monty has what they need. Having obtained the uncle’s permission, the unlikely duo head off to Monty’s cottage in the countryside. Things go awry with comic consequences as they arrive to discover a place that is less than desirable.

Marwood (Paul McGann) And Withnail (Richard E. Grant) In Withnail And I

‘Narcissistic, manipulative and self-indulgent are just some of his traits but above all he is simply riveting.’

One of the now ubiquitous stables defined as tragicomedy, Withnail and I is that mix of poignant sadness and joy so tightly interwoven it is at times very difficult to discern either.

The film centres on the extraordinary creation that is Withnail. Narcissistic, manipulative and self-indulgent are just some of his traits but above all he is simply riveting. Over two decades have passed since Withnail’s initial foray into Cinema and still Richard E. Grant is haunted by his part-creation.

Withnail possesses charm in abundance and has an almost supernatural ability to view himself as a victim despite his wrongdoing.

Marwood is the viewer’s surrogate. He is the one half-sane man in the exotically weird land that Withnail inhabits. Marwood allows the madness of Withnail to be balanced with a semblance of perspective.

Withnail (Richard E. Grant) In Withnail And I

‘Every act, every comment is regarded with deep meaningful seriousness’

The golden comic moments of the film centre on small, short vignettes peppered with sumptuous language and masterful performances by the actors involved. The rich, textured warmth of the poetry of the characters is espoused with frequent interjections.

The result of this magnificent marriage is a script that brings the viewers on an engrossing journey into the minds of the solipsistically afflicted with hilarious consequences.

Every act, every comment is regarded with deep meaningful seriousness the type of which can only result from the possession of an enormous ego and a drug-addled brain. Fortunately, for the viewer both Withnail and, to a somewhat lesser extent, Marwood have this egomaniacal trait in abundance.

Richard E. Grant gives the performance of his career as the despotic but likeable, Withnail. Grant’s character displays the appearance of the entire gamut of human emotions. From fear to mock concern and manic happiness, Withnail’s mood changes faster than the English summer weather.

Marwood (Paul McGann) And Withnail (Richard E. Grant) In Withnail And I

‘In essence Withnail is a vampire.’

The real measure of Grant’s performance though comes from his ability to simultaneously show Withnail’s insincerity and duplicitous nature while hiding his real intentions and beliefs through a believable veneer. In essence Withnail is a vampire. He sucks the life out of Marwood, selfishly and almost imperceptibly using him at every opportunity.

Paul McGann plays a very convincing foil to Withnail. Second to the larger-than-life ego of his friend, Marwood’s lack of inner belief and willingness to go along with the follies of Withnail underscores the weakness in his character. These weakness make Marwood very easily to relate and empathise with.

McGann, it must be noted, has a difficult role to perform. It would be very easy for his character to be completely overshadowed by the performing Withnail. Instead the actor manages to draw some of the viewer’s attention on what is really occurring.

Withnail (Richard E. Grant) And Marwood (Paul McGann) In Withnail And I

Marwood is someone who is not living up to his potential and is allowing his friend to limit him. Symbolically he stands for our unrealised potential. He let’s his friend hog the limelight and make the decisions when it is clear he should be the one to take responsibility.

‘his clumsy attempts at understanding Marwood are both mesmerising and truly laugh-in-the-stomach funny.’

Richard Griffiths puts in a stellar performance as Uncle Monty. His pursuance of Marwood contributes to some of the funniest scenes in the film. Griffiths’ Monty has great difficulty with reading people and his clumsy attempts at understanding Marwood are both mesmerising and truly laugh-in-the-stomach funny.

Special praise must go Bruce Robinson whose writing and direction are equally sharp. His characters and poetic language have combined for one of cinema’s great efforts. Withnail and I will live long into the memory. A masterpiece of film.

Highly Recommended

You can obtain Withnail and I here from Amazon.
For people living in Ireland or the United Kingdom, you can access: Withnail And I from here.
For Canada: Withnail & I.
For Germany: Withnail & I.
For France: Withnail & I .

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