Withnail: [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 several things: its hilarious lines, one of the saddest endings in comedy film history, its obnoxious fanbase (besides an evergreen popularity among university students, often people who see it will quote it whole), Robinson's mistreatment by Handmade Films, and its 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 he is... but only we and the wolves know that 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.
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
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 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.
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.
Reality Subtext: Something that makes the last twenty minutes even sadder. At the time, Paul McGann was an established actor and so he knew that he was still having a career after this movie. This was Richard E. Grant's first movie, however, so he had no idea if this was going to his one and only film or not and so he knew how upset and jealous Withnail was feeling. But as we all know, Grant's fears were unfounded and this film even managed to make him a sex symbol for a while.
Robinson based Withnail on his Real Life friend and actor, Vivian MacKerrell who actually did drink lighter fluid once. Robinson has attributed his friend's early death from throat cancer to this incident.
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.
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.
Write Who You Know: The film is based on Robinson's own life in London. Withnail is based on his friend Vivian MacKerrell, who later died of throat cancer.
Robinson maintains he received unwanted advances from Italian filmmaker Franco Zeffirelli whilst playing Benvolio as a young actor in the 1968 film adaptation of Romeo and Juliet. Uncle Monty is loosely based on this experience.