Famously, this mid-80s black comedy occupies a place at a certain select level of ‘cult films’ (certainly in the UK). Many people like to quote it incessantly, but it never made much of an impression on me when I saw it as a teenager, so it was good to reacquaint myself with it recently and realise that in fact — unlike so many garlanded cult films — it does deserve some of its popularity. It’s not cult in the sense of niche interest though, as it’s all fairly engaging; presumably the use of the term is more to do with its relative success at the time of its release. No indeed, there’s no egregious bad acting or flimsy sets, though stylistically the film isn’t particularly standout. What it has is wit and laughs and, in Richard E. Grant, a hugely charismatic anti-hero.
The titular characters are young actors and the setting is London at the arse-end of the 1960s, and not a particularly pleasant bit of London (either then or, perhaps to a lesser extent given the forces of gentrification, now). Nominally this is Camden Town, but to those of us who live nearby and pass through it regularly, it’s clearly not filmed there, but in the leafy Western suburbs, somewhere around Westbourne Green or Notting Hill (which when the film was made in the mid-1980s was pretty run-down too). My point is, these are not rich characters living the kind of idle life they would be if they inhabited one of these parts of London these days. They are living a classic student/actor’s life of hand-to-mouth scrabbling after sustenance, which mostly takes the form of alcohol. As it happens, Withnail has a rich uncle, Monty (Richard Griffiths), to whose country cottage the two repair for a holiday, but that’s about it as far as action goes. They each vaguely search for work, but we only hear about that in passing as ameans of punctuating Withnail’s wallowing.
So this is not a film about what the characters do, so much as how they do it. The film is really good at what it’s like to be between higher education and your first real job, if you’re down on your luck — and that’s probably the key to its cult success. The central character (Paul McGann, playing the unnamed “I” of the title) is the viewer’s proxy, and Richard E. Grant’s Withnail is probably how you might have imagined yourself through the haze of your 20-something heavy-drinking habits — angry and sarcastic and miserable, but witty and funny and relentlessly energetic in pursuit of narcotic relief from life’s pains. (There’s even a drinking game which has grown up around the film — drink when the characters drink — but it’s probably not advisable except to those who are in the same situation and point in life as the characters.)
It’s all put together with journeyman professionalism, but the core of the film’s success is in writer/director Bruce Robinson’s script, and the acting, particularly the single-minded Richard E. Grant and the luvvie lush Richard Griffiths. Paul McGann does fine with what he has to do, but it’s very much a less showy part. If you’re British and in your 20s or older, you’ve probably seen this film, but I think it stands up even after over 25 years as a fine example of a black comedy.
Director/Writer Bruce Robinson; Cinematographer Peter Hannan; Starring Paul McGann, Richard E. Grant, Richard Griffiths; Length 107 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 26 January 2014.