His name is Marwood.... A Withnail & I Review
Updated: Feb 9
So. I am writing a review of Withnail & I. This is likely to elicit two responses. Either "Woah, all a bit student isn't it? Going to do Betty Blue, Easy Rider, Man Bites Dog, and Clockwork Orange (on bootleg VHS from days of withdrawal of course)", or failing that, just simply; "What is that?"
To the former I say; No. Then, predictably, I am going to take issue with the latter. Just baffles me. So many times I am asked what my favourite film is. I respond with this title, and people look blankly. As if I have just mentioned some Icelandic student movie filmed on super 8 on Easter Island, released through a bankrupt independent Turkmenistan electrical wholesalers, about a Cloud falling in love with a sick-bag and it all being viewed through the eyes of a baby eel with all dialect being said backwards. They do not recognise one of the most quoted, adored, hilarious, start-studded, intriguing, and beloved British films ever, with a first starring role for a major English actor, supporting for an ex Dr Who, borne of acting royalty, and released in tragically lovable circumstances by a f**king Beatle, for christsake!
Seriously, I mean people that can talk about movies, even expressing some apparent knowledge, yet rendering that totally misguided by the expressed bewilderment of this uncut gem. In fact, one girl, who seemed to know her stuff, said to me that she was a (sic) HUUUUGGE Richard E Grant fan, and when I said that he was in my favourite movie, she proved herself, if you will excuse my severity, an Oxygen Thief, when she said she had never heard of it. Sorry, harsh, I know. Yet I am sure you will accept the labeling when I tell you shortly after, expressed how much she adored (or whatever) Kevin Spacey (she had even met him, as she proved with a picture of him at the Vic in the noughties, looking bored in her presence....the signs were definitely there) but had never heard of Swimming with Sharks, had not seen American Beauty, and didn't think Se7en was one of his good ones.
She was just one of many W&I virgins I have left alone, not explained the drinking game, the laughter scene at the end that is more infectious than Botulism. While I want to call them "terrible c**ts", I feel it is moot. Not to you though, you clicked, so shall you have ice in your cider.
As I said, it was released by a Beatle. George Harrison and his wonderful Handmade Films, with the soul drenching wonder behind the story of The Life of Brian (not for here, look it up) gives any movie with the Handmade logo a place in British independent cinema loving lore. So it has a good start. As does the movie:
Marlowe (unaccredited, as, but easier to write than "...& I") is a world weary young fellow with a referential likeability and a clear and relatable film of anxiety. He shares a dark, squalid, flat in north London with his destructive, selfish, and eccentric friend and fellow undiscovered thespian, Withnail. The wonderfully synced opening scene of Marlowe struggling to a mythical famous live version (once again, not for here, look it up) of Procul Haram's Whiter Shade of Pale. The junky anthem of the late sixties. On that subject, it is worth noting, as it is easy to miss, that the two are at the end of a week long speed-binge.
It cannot be any sort of accident that this film found a resurgence in the mid nineties, among the club generation. Rave had all but died, and was inner city now, ecstacy, while still plentiful and guzzled down in heroic quantities, had plummeted in quality and risen in price. People were getting a longer dance buzz from amphetamine. however, with E, you stand a chance of recovering by the following evening. As us clubbers know, speed, is not so forgiving. That is why anyone of the Mixmag generation watching Marlowe, as the titles go up, in that dingy, comedown chic, apartment, lighting spitty half smoked roll-ups, trying to get up by doubling over from cramps and dizziness, as all the blood is trapped between your waist and knees as you have been chewing through your jaw in that circulation-lancing squat for six hours and standing up is about as likely as opening the curtains. Yet, this punishment still has a day to go.
I will not make another cliched review about Richard E Grant first appearing as Withnail, or the famous continuity error about the egg sandwich (you guessed it, not for here.....). Just watching it, will show you the hilarity and the tragedy, the anti freeze cocktail, the near violent ponce-battering from a son of Erin, who may, or may not "Fuck Arses". All amongst the confused time void of a whizz comedown eloquently narrated by Mr Mcgann. ("Speed, is like a dozen transatlantic flights without ever getting off the plane.....all of a sudden those frozen hours melt through the nervous system...its crashing")
Now bear in mind we have already had a wildly entertaining opening, we have still not met Danny, the legitimately aspiring entrepreneur / drug dealer ("the purveyor of rare herbs and prescribed chemicals is back, will we never be set free"). His beautifully delivered prose and logic and his always narcotic-analogous, anecdotes will make you love him. Sadly he only has two appearances, happily, they are in ascending order of entertainment.
What I like is the lack of that old British movie trope of the drug dealer being the brainless thug alpha who bullies his victims with constant lording of the sellers market nature of his ubiquitous product (powder-power, I believe they call it). Here, he is shown to be the intelligent, sensitive, and forward thinking one, and the eponymous actor the spiteful reactionary one. Although, push Danny too far and.... you will know you have been spoken to.
So by now, our two heroes have clatteringly agreed to try and blag a rich uncle to lend his weekend country retreat to them. Unbeknown to Marlowe, it is secured by Withnail telling his flaming gay Uncle that his pal is a convicted rent-boy, in unrequited love with Withnail. All for vanity and manipulation reasons, reasons that blossom and evolve with Shakespearian perfection and subtlety, and against a background of the beautiful northern countryside. Eventually.
So we arrive in the freezing, fuel depleted, empty larder sporting cottage in Crow-Crag, near Penrith. The two realise, for the first time (the tagline for the movie plot) that they have "Gone on holiday by mistake" and will pay for said mistake. In many ways. By animal, vegetable, and mineral. they also realise, it is not weekend retreat. It is a rarely visited shack of inequity for his leanings.
I believe a movie bylaw states; if it is English, so shall it contain Michael Elphick. So it shall be, and so it does. The gruff, tough, entirely unpretentious, and unpredictable Jake, a local poacher. His lines, which for some reason are among the best, are pretty terrifying. The Withnail-christened "Silage Heathen" promises to come and see them. In the most menacing way.
The aforementioned cowardice in Withnail bubbles over to a hilarious misunderstanding. Leading to another when an unexpected visitor arrives.
Here, we must take a moment to pay homage to the titular characters portrayal. The rookie screen actor Mr Grant voicing, with seasoned aggression, the most memorable greeting to anyone in any movie. Ever. When the mysterious visitor reveals his identity, He carries on, changing his tone of voice and expression into a high pitched cracking. A vocal trick worthy of lifelong study. Employing convincing rage, post adrenaline fear-soaked relief, and foot-stomping bewilderment. So very impressive for a movie beginner. With no disrespect to the excellent Marlowe, he acts a member of the Mcgann dynasty off the screen (although, it has to be said he has more opportunity). Just moments like Paul Mcgann over-cockneying the angry dialogue (where he is ranting about the unhelpful farm hag and telling his pal to "bring in the shed" for firewood, he briefly turns into Martin Kemp as Reggie Kray), means we have to shave a few decimal points from his rating. Mr Grant, though, gets ten out of ten. Still, as a whole, the comfort the two leads have on screen, as well as the intertwining of the rich dialogue, creates a "chemistry" (I hate that word) rarely lamented, but never bettered.
Then, once the monkeyshines of the previous evening are over, the drinking can carry on. Culminating in a beautifully in-keeping scene of external debauchery in a local village tea-rooms. Now, as in so many movies, scenes appear for shock value, or to give a shot in the arm to a dying screenplay, this is neither. It is a rare, fluid, organic, and drunkenly hilarious riot. It fits like a pair of good quality rubber boots.
Jake the poacher returns, all too briefly then a night of drunkenness, fear, misunderstanding, followed by, as always, a mornings reflection, guilt, Marlowes name revealed (if you zoom) and a long, and far from uneventful journey home, aided with the best use of the intro of Jimi Hendrix's Voodoo Chile ever conceived.
After some more hilarity, and a gorgeous soliloquy from Danny about cultural apropriation and chemical-effect philosophy. We have the introduction of an infamous South London named, illiterous narcotic concoction, diluted into cliche by party bores the world over. A major "whitie" from Marlowe, some infectious giggling from Withnail, and a linguistically perfect summary from Danny, in his last spoken words, set the tone for the coming end. The future of the two main characters, already decided by fate and fortune, framed by a wet walk through Regent's Park.
Marlowe has finally acchieved the success hinted at in earlier scenes, he has cut his hair, he is off to Manchester to play the lead in the WWI tragedy, Journeys End. Withnail has to say a heartbreaking goodbye to his only friend in the rain (a little heavy-handed.....you decide). The story ends with Withnail dramatically and (in his mind) perfectly reciting the "What a piece of work is a man?" monologue from Hamlet ("I will never play The Dane.....?).
It is worth noting, that the original plan was to have Withnail kill himself by shotgun (from the cottage). A terrible idea in my mind, but interesting to see how the legend behind it would have changed the way it is remembered.
After all, it is worth noting, the character is based on a friend of writer Bruce Robinson from university, a debauched narcissistic hedonist, who after years of self destructive and roguish vanity, died of throat cancer. Not sure what that means from my perspective. I still think this ending was pretty much the way to go.
So is this a perfect film? No. I think it was a bit laboured at times. The country bleak filming gets a bit tiring, something about the shooting fish scene seemed hurried and almost as if the studio made them do it. It just did not have the care and fluid feel of the rest of the film. Plus, as I mentioned once before (so re-said), Mr Mcgann has a tendency to overact. Maybe having to mask his Liverpudlian accent caused him to need a larger presence at times than the part really gave him licence to. So a fair justification.
Still, small stuff. It is probably my favourite movie, and I will not do it the disservice of ending with a glib quote from it. After all I am reviewing it, not celebrating it. If that is possible.
Thanks for reading. Just watch it. That'll do.
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