"We've gone on holiday by mistake!"
: [after drinking an ounce of lighter fluid
] Have we got any more? [Marwood shakes his head
] Liar. What's in your toolbox? Marwood
: No, we have nothing. Sit down. Withnail
: Liar! You've got anti-freeze! Marwood
: Bloody fool! You should never mix your drinks!
[Withnail pauses, laughs hysterically, then falls over and vomits on Marwood's boots
—The title characters pretty much set the tone for the whole movie.
Made in 1987, Withnail and I
is a semi-autobiographical classic black comedy set in the end weeks of 1969. It's written and directed by Bruce Robinson, who lived it. The film stars Richard E. Grant
as Withnail, a messed-up, flamboyant alcoholic, and Paul McGann
as Marwood (or "I", since he's never named in the actual film), his slightly more gentle and sensible friend. Both are perpetually unemployed (and in Withnail's case, almost entirely unemployable) actors living in squalor, who decide to get away from it all with a holiday in the countryside. They do so by way of borrowing a cottage belonging to Withnail's — equally flamboyant — gay Uncle Monty.
Trouble is, everything goes wrong; they're totally incapable of looking after themselves, rendering the — in itself rather cosy — cottage a cold, dark, borderline inhospitable shack. They can't find any food, they throw their money away on booze, it won't stop pouring, the locals are surly and unwelcoming, a local poacher takes exception to Withnail and promises violent retribution. And as if that wasn't enough, Uncle Monty makes a surprise appearance, with amorous intentions towards Marwood.
The film is famous for its hilarious lines, as well as for having one of the saddest endings in comedy film history. It's gained cult status (besides an evergreen popularity among university students, often people who see it will quote it whole) and is considered an important part of British film culture. Equally (in)famous are Robinson's mistreatment by Handmade Films
during production, and the film's intense
amounts of Ho Yay
and Paul McGann Fanservice
The script is also notable as being a work of art just as much as the film is, and Robinson's descriptions outside of the dialogue have to be seen to be believed.
This film provides examples of:
- Abhorrent Admirer: Monty to Marwood.
- Adorkable: Both of them have their moments. Marwood gets his adorableness from Paul McGann being, well, Paul McGann, while Richard E. Grant breaking character to giggle in the cafe scene helped humanize Withnail.
- All There in the Manual: The screenplay is as much a work of art as the movie is. From the stage directions for the opening sequence:
Dostoyevsky described hell as perhaps nothing more than a room with a chair in it. This room has several chairs. A young man sits in one.
- The Alleged Car: The beaten-up Mark 2 Jaguar. One functioning headlight, one functioning windscreen wiper... on the passenger side. Not what you want for a drive around the Lake District.
- Bathroom Stall Graffiti: "I fuck arses."
- Bathtub Scene: Marwood has an extended scene where he shaves while taking a bath.
- Beauty Is Never Tarnished: Discussed and averted when Monty is reminiscing about a dalliance he had as a young man.
Monty: I sometimes wonder where Norman is now. Probably wintering with his mother in Guildford. A cat, rain, Vim under the sink, and both bars on. But old now, old. There can be no true beauty without decay.
- Bilingual Bonus: While Monty, Withnail and Marwood are playing cards, Monty and Withnail have a brief conversation in Latin about Marwood "Needing a Queen to come to the rescue", which also shows off the characters' upper class education.
- Black Comedy Rape: Well, attempted rape.
Monty: I mean to have you, even if it must be burglary!
- Blatant Lies: "I asshure you I'm not officer. I've only had a few ales."
- Bread, Eggs, Milk, Squick: Withnail announces that he needs a small child so he can tutor them into the ways of righteousness. And procure some uncontaminated urine.
- Butt Monkey: Marwood can't catch a break, and his instinctive response to bad luck is to grin nervously. He starts to complain after a while that he can't drink coffee because he's got a grinning cramp.
- Camp Gay: Uncle Monty. Withnail might also count, although his orientation is somewhat hazy
- Chromosome Casting: Withnail, Marwood and Monty (and, at a push, Withnail's dealer Danny) are the only characters of any significance in the film. Moreover, most of the characters of lesser significance are male too.
- City Mouse
- City Slicker: Inverted. Withnail and Marwood keep insisting "we're not from London!" to everyone they meet in the country because they're afraid of getting shafted.
- Cluster F-Bomb
- Cool Car: Monty's custom 1953 Rolls Royce. (Definitely not Marwood's Mark 2 Jaguar; see The Alleged Car.)
- Country Matters: One of Withnail's most famous lines.
- Corpsing: Richard E. Grant failed to stop snorting during the Penrith Tearooms scene, when talking about the jukeboxes. At the end of the film, Paul McGann can't suppress a chuckle in his voice when he tells Withnail to "stop laughing".
- Creator Cameo: Bruce Robinson appears as the barman in the London pub.
- Deadpan Snarker: Marwood has his moments:
Marwood: You never discuss your family, do you?
Withnail: I told you, we're incompatible. They don't like me being on stage.
Marwood: Then they must be delighted with your career...
Withnail: Why do you say that?
Marwood: You so rarely are.
- Deer in the Headlights: Marwood is unable to move for a few very long seconds when he realizes that Monty has come to his room.
- Deliberate Values Dissonance: Marwood is homophobic and racist, and says he voted conservative — he's a real product of the Sixties.
- Department of Redundancy Department: A man drives up to the cottage in a tractor with the logs Marwood asked for for firewood. Withnail asks him if he's the farmer... twice.
Marwood: Stop saying that, Withnail! Of course he's the fucking farmer!
- Dirty Coward: Withnail much more than Marwood:
Withnail I don't know what my fr... acquaintance did to upset you but I can assure you it's nothing to do with me. I suggest you both go outside and discuss it sensibly in the street...
- Not to mention Withnail causing Marwood's encounter with a randy bull, then jumping over the wall to let him deal with it.
- Dogged Nice Guy: Marwood wants to be this, but he carelessly goes along with Withnail's asshole behaviour and substance abuse.
- Downer Ending: Only the wolves know what a good actor Withnail can really be. At our last look of him, he seems in complete and utter despair.
- The original intended ending had Withnail committing suicide by drinking wine from a gun barrel, then pulling the trigger.
- Drama Queen: Both Withnail and Uncle Monty.
- Dramatic Thunder: Right before the telegram comes, signifying that their friendship is coming to an end.
- Drives Like Crazy: Withnail, which isn't surprising since he doesn't have a driving licence. When a groggy Marwood wakes up in the back seat of the Jaguar to find a drunk Withnail at the wheel flying round the M25 and chaotically weaving in and out of early morning traffic, Withnail simply explains, "I'm making time."
- End of an Age: In rare moment of lucidity by Danny. He states all the thoughts and ideas of The Sixties have become little more than commercialised junk for the grim Seventies.
- Also Marwood and Withnail's friendship is coming to end with Marwood pursuing an acting job.
- Erudite Stoner: Danny the drug dealer.
Danny: Politics, man. If you're hanging onto a rising balloon, you're presented with a difficult decision — let go before it's too late or hang on and keep getting higher, posing the question: how long can you keep a grip on the rope?
- Although his "wisdom" is actually pretty vapid compared to the main characters' much more down-to-earth problems, and it's even indicated that his drugs are at least somewhat to blame for their career problems.
- Everybody Smokes
- Eye Take: "Congratulations..." We see the precise moment when Withnail and Marwood's friendship ends for good.
- Fan Disservice: Kind of hard to enjoy the all-but-naked hot twentysomething when he's trying to avoid being taken advantage of by a man approximately twice his size.
- Fauxlosophic Narration: Marwood's writings frequently take on a philosophical bent.
Marwood: (voiceover) Even a stopped clock gives the right time twice a day. And for once I'm inclined to believe that Withnail is right. We are indeed drifting into the arena of the unwell.
- Fish out of Water: Both of them are totally at sea in the countryside.
- Foil: Withnail and Marwood, to each other. Marwood seems reasonable mostly in comparison to how reasonable Withnail isn't. And Withnail's strangeness and fecklessness is more apparent with Marwood to react to him and compare him with.
- Foreshadowing: When they first meet with Monty, Withnail says he intends to play "The Dane" (Hamlet) one day. At the end of the play, he mournfully recites a passage from the play.
- Four-Temperament Ensemble:
- Sanguine: Uncle Monty
- Choleric: Withnail
- Melancholic: Marwood
- Phlegmatic: Danny
- Friendship Moment: Doubly subverted when they're going back home. Marwood is panicking and sleep-deprived while driving and Withnail just cackles. But then he wakes up in the backseat disorientated to find Withnail has taken over and is "making time".
- Funny Background Event: Marwood's expression whenever Withnail is making grandiose claims about his success as a film and theatre star.
- Giftedly Bad: Withnail believes he's a great actor note and genuinely has no idea why he has been out of work for so long:
Withnail: Bastards! You'll all suffer! I'll show the lot of you! I'm gonna be a STAAAAAAAAAAARRRRR!
- By contrast Marwood has a much higher talent-to-ego ratio. While Withnail indulges in melodramatic bragging, Marwood quietly auditions for a small part in a play... and gets offered the lead.
- Heterosexual Life-Partners: As Paul McGann said, it's like a "marriage going wrong".
- Important Haircut: Marwood, in the final scene.
- Kindhearted Cat Lover: Inverted with Monty: he's clearly not to be trusted, since he despises his own pet cat.
- Know-Nothing Know-It-All: "A coward you are, Withnail. An expert on bulls you are not."
- Large Ham: Richard E.Grant isn't one but his character, Withnail, certainly is. All the world is a stage for him, and while we never see him on an actual stage we get to see him overact in his everyday life:
Withnail: I'm a trained actor REDUCED to the status of a bum!
- Uncle Monty is quite hammy as well. Presumably it's a family trait
- Last Note Nightmare: Withnail's Theme is bouncy and dramatic in a very sad way, but it ends on a thumping flat note. Considering who it's for, it's very fitting.
- Men Can't Keep House: Their London flat is squalid, and the kitchen is almost a biological hazard. They're scared to clean out the sink because they're pretty sure something is alive in there
- Mistaken for Gay: Happens to Marwood constantly: "Perfumed ponce!", "So you're a thesbian too?", "You want workin' on, boy..."
- Mood Whiplash: A film that's almost unrelentingly hilarious detailing two self-destructive people in the death spiral of their friendship is bound to be full of moments like this.
- Mr. Fanservice:
- If you're not a hard-drinking British university student, it's quite likely you watched it primarily for Marwood's shirtless scenes, even when he's nearly getting raped. Paul McGann spends a good third of his scenes in only his underwear.
- This was the film that turned Richard E. Grant into a sex symbol.
- No Celebrities Were Harmed: Monty is a thinly-veiled Franco Zeffirelli.
- No Name Given: Credited as "...& I", Marwood is named only in the screenplay. We shall never know Withnail's first name, on the other hand, leaving one to think it's something poncey like 'Sheridan'. However, this tweet from Richard E Grant would suggest it is 'Vyvian', which would make sense considering the person on whom the character is based, and the ponce-level of the name.
- There's a belief among fans that Marwood's first name is "Peter", thanks to a misheard line of dialogue in the movie that is not supported by the script. Although, during this interview Paul Mc Gann IS confirming that his character was called "Peter Marwood".
- No Pronunciation Guide: For the uninitiated, it's "WITH-null".
- Oireland: the Irishman (who's given no other name) is a thoroughly unpleasant man who tries to start a fight with our protagonists because he's offended that Marwood put perfume on his shoes (to keep them from stinking as much)
- Oop North: Much of the film takes place in the Lake District, a mountainous region near the Scottish border on the west cost of Britain. The locals appear to be slightly dismissive of "London types" from down south.
- Poisonous Friend: Withnail embodies the trope with absolute relish.
- Random Events Plot
- Red Oni, Blue Oni: Withnail is the energetic, impulsive red to Marwood's cool and reflective blue.
- Revised Ending: The ending would originally have had Withnail putting a gun in his mouth and pulling the trigger. It was changed to be not so completely depressing.
- Serious Business: The dishes. As any Troper who has flatted can attest, this is very much Truth in Television.
- Shirtless Scene: The movie is extremely dedicated to showing Paul McGann in various states of undress every few minutes.
- So Beautiful, It's a Curse: Poor Marwood.
- Sophisticated as Hell: Withnail constantly evokes both Upper-Class Twit and Sir Swearsalot in the same breath.
- Sorry Ociffer: The "GETINTHEBACKOFTHEVAN!" scene.
- Stoner Flick: More of a drinker flick than anything. As noted elsewhere, the only thing more notorious than the rules of the popular drinking game (match Withnail and Marwood drink for drink over the course of the film) is the fact that attempting to play the drinking game will land you in the hospital with alcohol poisoning.
- The Troubles: The bar in London that Withnail and Marwood go to at the beginning has PROVO IRA scrawled across it. Later, Withnail claims to have served in Ireland as part of the Territorials, in order to scam a free drink from a bartender.
- Unkempt Beauty: Marwood until the end where he has to look proper and Withnail as soon as they hit the countryside.
- When He Smiles: Subverted with Marwood, who has a very sweet smile, but he deploys it mainly when he's nervous, which ruins the effect slightly.
- You Wouldn't Hit a Guy with Glasses?:
Withnail: I have a heart condition. I have a h-h-heart condition. If you hit me, it's murder.
Irishman: I'll murder the pair of yous!
Withnail: My wife is having a baby!