Thursday, April 25, 2013

Movies Worth Watching: Withnail and I

Every Sunday night or so, a group of us get together and watch whatever movies seem worth watching at my studio space in Providence.  We've watched Hitchcock, Kurosawa, Woody Allen, films just to name a few, and some one offs along the way as well.  These blog posts will be retroactive reviews of old (and sometimes new) movies worth watching.  Withnail and I wasn't even on my radar until I saw it two weeks ago

written and directed by Bruce Robinson
Made in 1987
108 minutes long

Why watch it? 

Look to it for strong set design, atmosphere and good use of poetic dialog (tasteful. Just enough - not too much).  The film beautifully mixes a full range of emotions – mania, depression, paranoia, joy, petulance - all set against a drab and raining North London backdrop. The cinematography is bravely gloomy, turning whatever might be luscious or scenic about London’s countryside into a soaking dismal place.  The atmosphere and tone of the film is so strong and it effects the characters so distinctly, I can’t help but be reminded of Jane Campion’s The Piano.  The film also features stellar and very quotable performances like Richard Griffith’s Uncle Monty and Richard E. Grant’s Withnail.  

Why is it relevant?

With the imminent legalization of marijuana on the horizon, and drug-politics in the news daily, it feels like suddenly everyone is talking about drugs all the time.  So when better to indulge in a film that reminds us that everyone has always been thinking about, talking about and taking tons of drugs all along.

I tend to avoid movies where getting high, drunk or otherwise inebriated is not only the plot, but the punch line to all the jokes as well.  Stoner films like Half Baked or the 100 plus minutes of mind-bending depression that was Requiem for a Dream leave me feeling out of the loop.  They remind me of long nights clumsily but politely refusing to order drinks – “water is good for me thanks” and eventually have to explain to the wait staff “I’m not recovering, I just don’t like the to drink that much” While Bruce Robinson’s Withnail and I is certainly of the genre, it only indulges in the automatic comedy of inebriated mania occasionally, and when it does it is smart and well written. 

What’s it about?

Set in Camden Town in the late 1960’s and featuring songs like Jimi Hendrix’s All Along the Watchtower to firmly place it in time with nostalgia, Withnail and I takes us back to an era that we remember fondly but had the potential to suck terribly.   Withnail and I displays for us -in all grey hues -exactly how bad that drug-addled world could get.

The 1960’s were a turbulent time and this film zooms into the co-dependant, slightly abusive, but totally hilarious relationship of two mid twenty’s would be actors on a terrific bender while waiting to hear back from auditions. The British backdrop gloomily escapes the upbeat American Hippy tropes that are so prevalent in Hollywood films from the time and because we aren’t in America the characters aren’t constantly talking about Vietnam – a relief, but somehow (in a culture-centric kind of way) the steady beat of the war drum seems missing. There isn’t much by way of free love, happiness or the wandering political platitudes that we imagine whenever one thinks of the late 60’s.  This film speaks the cynical, ambivalent language of Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider or John Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy.  But funnier.

The film opens in Marwood’s ( I- played by Paul McGann) and Withnail’s (played by Richard E. Grant in his first film) squalid Camden Town flat. 
The roommates have intoxicated themselves into raving chaos, and Withnail’s flamboyant dialog sets the tone immediately.

Richard Grant’s performance as the fast talking, lying, sneaking, yet somehow charming Withnail is commanding and intimidating.  A scene in which he fully covers himself in lotion, vigorously rubbing it into his nipples, chugs the last of the lighter fluid, pukes, and passes out cackling at the feet of roommate Marwood, lets us know that Withnail is as uncouth as he is clever.

While there are stellar performances all around, Richard Griffith’s Uncle Monty earns its reputation as the most mentionable character and shows why his performance dominates the Withnail and I youtube search.  Desperate for a healing holiday to escape their drug addled existence the pair decide visit Uncle Monty with the intention of securing a key to his cottage in the country.  Uncle Monty is an erudite homosexual who accosts the duo with innuendo moments after their arrival.  Though Marwood is visibly uncomfortable, Monty makes it clear that an extended visit and awkward company is the cost of use of the cottage but the pair slip out the door and head for the cottage while Monty is distracted.  This short introduction sets up Griffith’s brave and imposing performance.

Neither the director nor the actor hold back in portraying Monty as disturbing, invasive, piggish, especially when Monty corners Marwood later at the cottage and says one of the films most famous lines “I mean to have you even if it must be burglary”.  While Monty has his charms he is overwhelming and forceful in his lust for Marwood, and while the film offers plenty of room for chuckles, these scenes aren’t any where near funny.  They are purely awkward and nervous.

Withnail and I has achieved the honored but dubious title of “Cult Classic” – a category I tend to avoid attributing to a film in which the formal and cinematic quality should earn it a place among more venerable films than the likes of Attack of the Killer Tomatoes.  While its quirky and unusual duo make their way through a the breath of London’s landscapes, the “us against the world” humor reminds me sweetly of Harold and Maude’s unlikely pair.  Its ceaseless madness and chaos delivered in what sometimes feels more like prose than dialog predates Johnny Depp’s film depiction of Hunter S. Thompson in Fear and Loathing.  However being made in 1986, Thompson’s influence seems apparent.  Performances like Ralph Brown’s Danny the Drug Dealer (google it)  are so poetically written that, while certainly a stereotype, I couldn’t help but love the character.  And while films about doing drugs can be equally trite, this one is anything but