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Comedy is seen as an everlasting staple of the British film industry and British culture in general. There are many great comedies from the nation and one of the most highly regarded movies is Bruce Robinson’s semi-biographical film, Withnail and I.
Withnail (Richard E. Grant) and the unnamed “I” (Paul McGann) are two unemployed actors living in a squalid flat in Camden Town, London in 1969. Withnail is highly theatrical alcoholic and I has a more level headed and neurotic personality. Desperate to get away from London, Withnail asks his flamboyant Uncle Monty (Richard Griffiths) to stay in his cottage in the Lake District. But the pair’s friendship is tested, due to the dilapidated conditions of the cottage, horrible wet weather, hostile locals and Monty’ s sexual advances towards I.
Withnail and I was a big flop when it was first released back in 1987 but found a second life thanks to the home video market and most importantly of all, university film societies. Now, the film is a cult classic, seen as compulsory viewing for any university student who considers themselves a film fan in the UK.
There are two key reasons why Withnail and I is such a beloved film, the first being the script (particularly the dialogue) and the performances from Grant and McGann. Withnail and I is very quotable movie, filled with witty and hilarious monologues and exchanges between the characters, as they navigate through more farcical situations together.
Grant and McGann had a great working relationships, providing plenty of comic energy and had the chemistry the movie needed. Grant was able to brings a lot of bravado as Withnail who has a theatrical delivery and attire, while McGann is the straight-man of the pair, yet still provides plenty of laughs. Both actors complemented Robinson’s dialogue, enhancing the comedy, while Robinson uses a few visual gags and set pieces to make the audience laugh.
Along with Grant and McGann, Withnail and I features a memorable supporting cast of British and Irish actors. The most notable are Griffiths as Uncle Monty, who’s always trying get his way with I, yet has some moments of humanity and Danny, the philosophical drug dealer played by Alien 3‘s Ralph Brown. It is easy to see how Danny was an influence for the character of Super Hans in the sitcom Peep Show (if you have not seen Peep Show you should do so immediately).
Withnail and I is not all comedy, it follows the old maxim of ‘make them laugh, make them cry’. The friendship between Withnail and I does deteriorate during their holiday and the ending is tender, sombre and respectful towards the characters.
Withnail and I is a classic comedy because its fantastically written characters, their dialogue with each other and the performances from the whole cast. There is a great recreation of the 1960’s with a soundtrack featuring the likes of Jimi Hendrix and The Beatles.
Withnail and I also spawned a drinking game where participants need to copy what Withnail drinks: this features nine and half glasses of red wine, half a pint of cider, two and half shots of gin, six glasses of sherry, thirteen glasses of whisky, half a pint of ale and a shot of lighter fluid. If you try this, you will most certainly need your stomach pumped.