(Been in the queue for a while)
I’d assumed that actually *lots* of intelligent people considered Withnail and I charmless drinking-game boorishness (NB I don’t, obviously)
— Owen Hatherley (@owenhatherley) March 29, 2013
So, why should you watch Withnail & I, other than just for the laughs?
Comedy built on tragedy
There’s Monty, tragically alone, a man forced by society to live a bizarre life in which he’s stuck in his niche from 30s Oxford. As his role becomes increasingly dated and incongruous with his age, this drives him into greater and greater pretence and eventually makes a rapist of him. Richard Griffiths could have portrayed him as a pathetic wreck, a moral monster, or just a gay-hating gargoyle. He did none of these.
There’s Withnail, hopeless addict, determined to waste his undoubted talent. Like Monty, he’s trapped, but in a different role, that of North London pub star. Keeping it together is making him progressively more manipulative, less sympathetic…
And of course there’s Marwood, or rather their friendship. Marwood is by far the best adjusted person in the film, and he’s eventually going to get on with life. But doing so inevitably means the destruction of their friendship, and an important step in Withnail’s self-destruction. Withnail’s manipulativeness will, of course, eventually do them in. This is flagged up in Danny’s soliloquy, about the rising balloon. That’s politics, innit. Clearly, Danny is playing the role of a classical fool here.
Truth to place and time
It’s meant to be Camden Town in 1969, it’s actually Camden Town in 1981. Either way, we’re looking at the urban nadir, the historic point when people were flooding out of London, before things turned around. Ken Livingstone’s GLC and the resumption of major transport projects into the city (Thameslink) is just around the corner but it’s far from obvious.
The plot relies on the rotten city. The flash of the 60s is gone, everything is falling apart. And there is no future in the countryside, either, with the various eel-brandishing nutters. Neither is there any future with Monty and the nobs. Importantly, at the end of the film, Marwood skips town heading for Manchester and its “great little theatre”. He’s thinking of the much mocked but never reversed world launched by Shelagh Delaney, Joan Littlewood, Kenneth Tynan, and so forth. It’s quite a clear point in 1969, less so in 1981, but it worked. And, of course, 12 years’ urban neglect did wonders for the look and feel.
The plot is also organised around two trips to the north; Withnail’s holiday by mistake to the countrified, aristocratic past and Marwood’s to the Mancunian, or possibly Mancunian Way, future.
Richard Griffiths dares you even to notice the excess, or that he’s playing a man 30 odd years older, and he gets the full value out of the tragedy. Richard E Grant picks up the role of the charming sociopath, and the interplay with Monty/Griffiths works superbly with the cut-over between class and sexuality. He communicates with Monty in a mixture of Etonian and queer code, all that is available to them to survive in the future by exploiting Paul McGann’s role as the straight man (in every sense).