Film review of the Beatcheck screening, in Stony Stratford, of the cult classic comedy starring Richard E. Grant and Paul McGann.
Cast & credits
Producer: Paul M. Heller.
Writer: Bruce Robinson.
Camera: Peter Hannan.
Music: David Dundas, Rick Wentworth.
Sets: Michael Pickwoad.
Richard E. Grant, Paul McGann, Richard Griffiths, Ralph Brown, Michael Elphick.
Two out of work and alcoholic actors (Grant, McGann) live in a squalid North London flat and dodge crazy drug dealers (Brown) and the attentions of Grant’s homosexual uncle (Griffiths) as they wait for the phone to ring from their agents with that elusive job. Deciding to escape the depression of their lives, they embark on a holiday to Griffith’s isolated cottage near Penrith ostensibly to recuperate. But events take a comical and very drunken turn.
The archetypal British cult classic, director Robinson’s unapologetically part-autobiographical comedy about two archetypal struggling actors, boozed and pilled up, flailing in their own fetid flat and delusions of success.
I saw the film many years ago and had only dim recollections of it as I approached this screening at The Crown pub in Stony Stratford, the historic Buckinghamshire market town that doubled for Penrith in the movie. The pub, that the lead characters nip into for a quick few jars, is still open and serving “the finest wines known to humanity”.
This was an interesting and highly entertaining experience, watching a film about people getting pissed with people who were also getting pissed, a sort of ‘Intoxicated Immersion Cinema’.
Beatcheck screenings are refreshingly free easy compared with your usual film society. We were issued with ‘Fight Club’ style rules namely watch the film, go to the toilet whenever you want, get drinks from the bar whenever you want (open throughout the movie) and quote as freely as you like. Excellent tips that served the patron sat next to me well, who discreetly whispered lines of dialogue at key moments.
A merry, inebriated audience participation flowed, a few pre-empting shouts at the screen, a few glasses knocked over as people picked their way over legs and chairs in the darkness, but much fun was had by all.
And so onto the film itself. A million words of fanatical appreciation have already been scribbled about Withnail and I will duly follow suit. I love this film. It’s bonkers and right out there in the so-grossly-exaggerated stratosphere that a large proportion of it has to be true (check out this fan appreciation site for what absolutely happened in real life).
The irreplaceably funny moments include Withnail (Grant) smearing himself in Deep Heat to keep warm and then downing lighter fluid (an incident attributed to the late actor Vivian MacKerrell, a former flat-mate of Robinson’s), Withnail cunningly avoiding being beaten by a burly Irishman, the duo attempting to feed themselves by fishing in a river using only a shotgun, Brown’s uniquely placable accent and profoundly nonsensical whitterings as drug dealer Danny and Uncle Monty’s (Griffith) failed seduction of I/Marwood.
The dialogue is precious and places the film perfectly on its own two legs. It’s unimaginable for such splenetic, foul-mouthed words to sound so clever and beguiling. Griffith’s ridiculously covert, gay innuendo in which he replaces male sexual organs with a variety of root vegetables will induce a chuckle in the most repressed of cinema-goers, but he is also given to vivid prose (as dusk approaches, he says ‘the sky is bruising’, a brilliant description).
We are not given much information about the back story of the characters, except that they are all failures to some degree, looking either wistfully or with angry regret on their pasts. Uncle Monty never had the confidence to pursue acting and will “never play the Dane”, Withnail scorns the producers and directors who haven’t utilised his talent, other male actors having probably prostituted themselves to get ahead. I/Marwood is prone to sub-Byronic poeticism to surmise his current, fetid predicament.
Promise is unfulfilled in Withnail, as evidenced in his final scene as he delivers a perfect soliloquy from Hamlet to artistically ignorant zoo animals, he’s stuck in a never-changing present of disappointing phone calls to his agent, depressive ramblings and constant thirst for booze. I/Marwood is hopeful and looks ahead, manages to avoid the bottle and lands a plum leading role, much to his surprise.
Grant was never better than this performance, the one that launched his careers (though the film earned only a pittance when first released), revelling in the fevered ramblings, shouting at schoolgirls, the landscape or anyone who will listen to him. Grant is teetotal in real life, requiring some skilful manipulation by director Robinson to coax out this classic, piss-head turn.
McGann’s almost angelic, curly haired good looks are presented in complete opposition to Grant’s sweaty, deathly pallor, but his anxiety ridden and slightly naive ‘I’ is just as impressive. Griffiths and Brown round off a remarkably funny quartet of performances with inimitable, irreplaceable performances.