Withnail & I Film Review

A Tragi-Comedy about the 60s

Back to Catalog

I already recorded a conversation about Withnail & I with  ThoughtAgent. We discussed most aspects of the film  but it felt a little incomplete probably because I was unable to re-watch the film before our discussion. So I rewatched the film today and had another discussion about it with Zarathustra's Serpent which also started out badly with some embarrassing technical fuck ups (craigbot on discord stopped working, luckily ThoughtAgent saved the day by recording the convo on his PC through OBS) but once we got into it, I think it got better. These thoughts below are mostly based on those conversations.

The film is very quotable but you can look up the quotes yourself so I'll just say the movie is carried by the dialogue and not the special effects. The locations look nice in Penrith, UK, the English countryside, but they are nothing mind blowing. This is not the first film to exploit the beauty of the English countryside nor will it be the last.

The story is set around 3 months before the end of the 1960s in Britain. Two alcoholic, drugged actors in the their late 20s (almost 30) leave for the English countryside to get some fresh air. One of them snaps out of the drunken stupor and the friendship comes to an end which is sad. The end.

Is it about the failure of youth culture in the 60s portrayed  by two young failed actors living in a crummy London flat while doing drugs and acting theatrically? On the surface it might appear unsympathetic to the hedonistic and pauperish, rootless, alcoholic life-style of Withnail and Marwood (the fans found out that the "I"'s name was Marwood) but I still see some sugar-coating and romanticism - because of course Withnail's actor really does play the part of "a trained actor reduced to the status of a bum" and there is also some deflection of the blame through the implication that things were really crummy, hideous, and falling apart in Britain, so Withnail was living true to the real spirit of the time in a sense while Marwood lets go by the end.  Then again it seems I am the only one who thinks this way as both Zarathustra and ThoughtAgent seemed to find Withnail wholly unsympathetic and uncharismatic. I didn't find Withnail totally dis-likeable, because despite the fact that he doesn't act out rationally on it - he still has the urge for something more, for himself.

According to Zarathustra this is a post-modern film which is something that never occurred to me. I should have asked what he means by post-modern. Some people like academic agent use that word to mean that a work of art is referential but that is too vague because all art is more or less referential. Zarathustra said that there is no structure and stuff just happens like in real life, that's probably what he meant by post modern now that I think about it. By that definition in a sense post-modern art should be more realistic than surrealistic. The story-telling did not appear strange to me at all if I am being honest, then again maybe we post-moderns are so used to post-modern storytelling that it's not something unexpected or weird, it has lost its novelty and become normal and unexciting. Or maybe not.

There was a character arc, well for the director's self-insert protagonist anyway - I say he is a self-insert because the director claims this movie is based on his experiences in the 60s, in the Marwood character from an actor reduced to a bum to a real actor but then again as Zarathustra said that this could be viewed as selling out in a sense by becoming an adult. Doesn't this make this a coming of age story then?

There was a beginning with introductions, a middle where the bulk of the story happened in the countryside and most importantly an ending. I would have imagined a post-modern story would not have a satisfying ending but it would just stop somewhere randomly or go beyond what should be the ending. N0 THANKY0U's Denpa video is a good example of this.

I believe the flat in London is in a place called Camden Town, and if I am not mistaken Camden now is no longer the crummy place that's portrayed in the film but some gentrified area full of middle-class people, many of whom are probably not even of British descent. As for Penrith, representing the English countryside- I believe ThoughtAgent who has been on holiday in the English countryside said that it's kind of the same but more modern and the people have changted (not just ethnically but culturally, for instance the police officers dress a lot more like gimps with their high-viz vests, stun guns, than figures of authority today) but the thing which struck ThoughtAgent which has remained the same was the motorways which  Withnail and Marwood drunkenly traversed up and down the country. The replacement of trains with motor cars as the primary means of transport was already turning Britain into a little USA back then. How sad it is that only the motorways for rootless metropolitans have remained the same.

 Zarathustra said that he couldn't get the humour because you needed to be British to get it. The comedy is a bit fast I'll admit but really if you watch it with subtitles on you will get the jokes. I got them and I am not British. Jokes like "Warm up? We might as well sit around a cigarette", "Those are the kind of windows faces look in.", "He's had more drugs than you have had warm dinners", "The best tailoring you've seen is above your fucking appendix," and there's more but I have made my point. I don't want to turn this review into the kind of small talk you would have with your mate when walking out of the cinema, "remember when x and y happened." I don't mean this as some sort of back-handed Anglophile's self-compliment, "I get Bri ish comedy haha, that makes me bri ish basically," I just don't see how the jokes really require you to be British to get them.

I don't want to talk about the social class aspects of the film because I have already done that at length when talking with ThoughtAgent and Zarathustra so to put it briefly, there's a lot of leftwing cosmopolitan liberal arts sneeding, on the one hand at the upper class above Marwood in the form of Withnail and Monty (Withnail's uncle) who appear as ridiculous and hypocritical and not virtuous or aristocratic and on the other hand the salt of the earth ordinary people beneath Marwood are portrayed as soulles, passionless and stiff. However I am the only one who saw it, ThoughtAgent and Zarathustra did not notice it, so more than likely it is all in my head. This is certainly not one of those modern, leftwing, humourless, preachy morality tales. It's just the director's elitist side showing, and that's alright. You can't really form any group if you don't believe that you are the elite and that you ought to be the elite, as these liberal arts students apparently felt.

Britain has now fully come down from the high of the empire, and although Britain may have kickstarted pop culture with stuff like the Sherlock Holmes stories, now it is mostly an irrelevant backwater, Zarathustra pointed out that things like Game of Thrones and Harry Potter proves otherwise. GoT was a failure that should be forgotten and Zarathustra must know what happened to HP's author. Speaking of SH, if you squint your eyes you can see the relation between SH and Dr. W replicated in Withnail and Marwood respectively. Just as Dr W, Marwood is the narrator for us to self-insert to in a sense, and just as it is sad when H and Dr. W have to part at the end of their adventures so too here at the end of their misadventures. Look at Withnail's physiognomy (lanky and tall) and class and messiness and eccentricity, of course Withnail is a lout and H is not but that is because I don't think people would find him a believable character in a cynical time a loser is a more believable and authentic character.

I should note that this review has mostly been nit-picking because that sounds more genuine than praise which I have seen doled out in excess in other reviews of this film. I didn't like this film when I first watched it, maybe it was for the post-modern story-telling Zarathustra mentioned after all, but then on subsequent viewing it kind of grew on me because of some of the memorable dialogue and jokes. I guess because it is post-modern it is a bit of a choose-your-own adventure when it comes to its meaning - which is fine as long as you are aware your interpretation is not written in stone but is whimsical and one among many that should be added to each other to give a more richer view.

I have seen Academic Agent and others make references to Withnail in their streams. There isn't such a thing as a meaningless reference, every reference is an acknowledgement, every acknowledgement is an affirmation, so reference freely. Even despite itself Withnail can be taken as a celebration of Britain, and so it must be taken as such. We live in the ashes, so light the ashes up to re-kindle the flame. This is how.

By Otaking, or The Good Student