Friday, 21 March 2014

Brief Review of "Withnail & I" (1987)

Withnail & I is a serious comedy set in the year of 1969. The film follows the characters of Withnail and Marwood - a pair of young, unemployed actors living it rough in their shoddy London flat.

From the opening shot the set design is engrossing. The majority of the film takes place in claustrophobic rooms filled with piles of (mostly ugly) decorative items. Each set is so packed that the actors must dodge and weave through the endless accumulations of stuff. This immediately provides an authentic sense of place; the setting is totally believable throughout the film.

Cadaverous, proudly carried and filled with drunk energy, Withnail is a captivating character in every scene. He shows little indication of truly desiring acting work, turning down an understudy role with his high-horse attitude. He is drawn to the romance and hijinks of this life as an out-of-work actor. It allows him to do no work and blame others for it. And thanks to the safety net that is his family’s wealth, “the unemployed artist” is a life he can afford to live.

Marwood, on the other hand, worries about things (shown to us through his narration of several anxiety attacks). While he certainly likes Withnail and his larks, particularly enjoying their drunken raid of a tea room, Marwood takes life more seriously. He acts as a surrogate for the viewer, allowing us to empathise with his frequent annoyance with Withnail.

The crux of the film follows our opportunistic protagonists on their impromptu holiday to a run-down cottage in the country. Combating unexpectedly harsh conditions, it isn’t long before both we and the characters experience enough discomfort to want to leave, missing the small London flat where they can at least muster a bowl of coffee. But then their plans to leave are buggered - pun intended - by an arrival in the night: Withnail’s Uncle Monty. One would think the line between rapist and romantic to be easily distinguishable, but Withnail & I decisively makes it difficult for us to decide quite how malicious Monty is.

The sexualisation of Marwood is a theme throughout the film. He sleeps in nothing but underwear and his curly hair often appears feminine. When Monty admits his affections for Marwood, it is revealed that Withnail fuelled this unpleasant situation. It’s the final straw for Marwood.

The surprisingly sad final scenes are brilliant in their sense of truth. Marwood decides to grow up and move on, symbolised by his conservative new haircut. All sense of lark is diminished. It is easy to imagine how the rest of these characters’ lives would play out: Marwood working his way towards a stable life, Withnail doing whatever it takes to continue his destructive lifestyle of self-pitying pleasure. The events of the film mark the crossroads where their lives fleetingly intersected. They clung together as long as possible - often quite literally on screen, their bodies pressed together warmly. But Withnail & I’s final statement pierces the excellent comedy with a powerful dramatic core: nothing lasts.