5 out of 5 stars

If cleanliness truly is next to godliness, then what, exactly, is filth next to? Is a life of squalor—if we’re following the logic of cleanliness and godliness—ungodly, then? It seems a bit harsh. But suggesting that Withnail (Richard E. Grant), a befuddled Bohemian, would ever want to live a life of godliness is perhaps just as offensive. This is a story about a man, credited only as “… & I” (Paul McGann), coming to terms with the fact that his partner in crime, Withnail, has rejected a clean life. To Withnail, cleanliness is a dirty word.

Britain’s appetite for grime is insatiable, especially on film. The national desire to see heroism, fantasy, and romance is perhaps surpassed by our urge to peek into the lives of the downtrodden and the abused. In the 1960s, when Withnail and I is set, there was a Tony Richardson kitchen sink drama for every Powell and Pressburger beauty.

This continues to this day; just look at the enduring popularity of both This is England and its many iterations, and The Crown (2016-2023). It’s been argued that the bourgeois dramas are designed to appeal to an American audience who largely picture the UK as a land where everyone’s a member of the nobility and travels by horse-drawn carriage. The slice-of-life dramas, conversely, are for the native Brits, who long to see the real country presented on screen.

We shouldn’t let ourselves off the hook so easily. We’re just as obsessed as the Americans are with our own absurd class system. We celebrate an archaic monarchy, but become frustrated when we’re viewed as old-fashioned. We distil an abstract image from Britain’s past and point to it as proof of our once ‘great’ nation, yet we become irate when we’re criticised. We make jokes about tea, our footballing failures, and our dreadful weather. We are enamoured with both our glory and failings in equal measure. There’s nothing British—from colonialism to the sausage roll—that we won’t romanticise.

Withnail is an out-of-work actor, and so is “I”. “I” is also an unpublished writer. Withnail claims to be classically trained, and recalls his past glories as if he’s a much older man coming to the end of his life. Perhaps 29 is really 89 in actor years. They share a grotty but spacious flat in Camden—nowadays, it’d be fitted with all mod cons, but affordable to absolutely nobody who would have an interest in living there. It would probably be called an ‘executive living space’.

Opposite their home, wrecking balls thunder through the brickwork of Victorian houses, swinging ever closer with each passing scene. Maybe their flat wouldn’t go on to be renovated—maybe it’d be torn down entirely. Inside, dirty plates are piled high, dingy corners harbour hungry rodents, and old, torn film posters sag from the walls, snatched from decaying picture houses.

A barely legible poster features a reproduction of the iconic scene where Harold Lloyd dangles precariously from the hands of a clock in Safety Last! (1923). Perhaps London in 1969 felt just as precarious, and a motivational tool—especially one depicting the sacrifices made for art—was necessary. It served as their own version of the “Hang in there, Baby” poster.

Withnail and I is a film about hanging on, hangovers, and hanging around. They while away the hours searching for booze and drugs, sleeping, staring into fireplaces—anything to pass the time until the phone rings with a job offer, or the doorbell chimes and their dealer delivers some new product.

A necessary folie à deux keeps the men going. This crazed belief that by doing absolutely nothing they are living the life of bona fide artists, and that dwelling in such depressed conditions lends them an air of eccentricity that only life’s true characters possess, is what sustains them.

Writer-director Bruce Robinson allows Richard E. Grant to steal every scene he’s in, break into soliloquies, and push Withnail’s barnstorming eccentricity to its absolute limit. It’s not so much that Grant is well-cast—it’s more that Withnail as a character doesn’t exist without Grant. It’s impossible to imagine another actor in the role. His clear, red-rimmed eyes, tall, thin figure, and shock of black hair make him feel like a drawing that has come to life.

Yet, Grant’s real genius in the role lies in how he makes Withnail feel weighed down by the utter tragedy that is his life. Every pompous turn of phrase is over-performed—the world is Withnail’s stage. It’s as if his spotlight has been switched off, and as his eyes adjust to the dark, a realisation seems to slowly dawn on him: his audience has long gone.

The only person he has left is Uncle Monty (Richard Griffiths). As co-dependent as their friendship seems, the true complexity only begins to reveal itself once the boys ditch London for a countryside holiday. Staying in a rustic cottage belonging to Uncle Monty, their problems and inadequacies are only magnified. They have no food, no means of heating, and nothing to do. They’ve brought the sour atmosphere with them from London.

Their bickering, along with their uncanny ability to piss everyone off they encounter, has followed them to the sweeping, autumnal vistas of the Lake District. Bruce Robinson’s razor-sharp script reaches some of its highest peaks in these scenes, with the petty infighting between the two turning even the simplest of tasks into a pig’s ear. “Are you the farmer?” Withnail asks, with an actor’s flourish, for the fifth or sixth time to a man in a tractor. “Stop saying that, Withnail!” “I” replies. “Of course he’s the fucking farmer!”

Robinson’s film thrives on the tension between people thrown together. This is no better exemplified than by Uncle Monty, who shows up to surprise the two in the dead of night. Monty’s a true luvvie, another ageing actor who reminisces with anecdotes and lives surrounded by relics of the past. Anything living in the moment, like his house cats, are just a nuisance, preventing him from yet another stroll down memory lane. “Yet again, that oaf has destroyed my day!” he declares of the cat interrupting his stories.

Like Grant’s, Griffiths’ performance is both hysterical and melancholic. Monty has led a life of repression, and sees in “I” a supposed younger version of himself, as well as the epitome of male beauty. He “means to have” him, :even if it be burglary!” he proclaims. While the terrified “I” reiterates that he is, in fact, not gay and not at all interested, the comedic escalation uncovers some complicated truths.

Monty’s a pig, alright. But he’s also a tragically lonely man, one who’s misread signs and craves the life he couldn’t live openly when he was younger. “I” remains nameless, and Monty isn’t the only one who can project an idea onto this blank canvas.

If Withnail isn’t his partner, then what the hell are they doing together, Monty seems to wonder. What appeared to be a co-dependent relationship is actually far more one-sided. Withnail needs “I,” but “I” doesn’t need Withnail. When Monty makes his noisy entrance into the house, Withnail mistakes it for a break-in and pleads to sleep in the same bed as “I.” He’s rebuffed but sneaks back in later.

When Withnail proposes a toast to celebrate some good news “I” receives, his face seems more desperate than his words. The message is clear: “Please, don’t let me drink alone.” Again, the answer is no. Withnail suggests they walk together and drink along the way. The answer remains negative. Does Withnail love to drink, or does he crave drinking with his friend? Does he hang around to make his habits seem more eccentric than they truly are? When Withnail downs a bottle of lighter fluid, it seems a performance in itself—who else, he seems to ask, will entertain you like I do? He makes a spectacle of himself, and “I” is his necessary audience. Without him, he’s just a lonely man, drinking in squalid rooms.

Robinson leaves room for interpretation. In the gulf between what the men feel and what they say lies much of the entire spectrum of male friendships. Whether Withnail loves him, or whether he’s actually in love with him, what is expressed instead is a pragmatic, day-to-day tackling of problems, with no room given for emotional honesty. In the grand British tradition, frustrations are vented through proxy arguments: what to eat, what to drink, where to go, what the weather’s like—anything but how they really feel about each other.

To face up to it would be to admit that Withnail is going nowhere, while his friend still has some spark of a dream alive that hasn’t yet curdled into bitterness. To face the idea in any friendship that you might not always be in each other’s lives is so heartbreaking that most of the time it’s taboo to even mention it. It’s like knowing you’ll die one day—instinctively we know it’s true, but somehow it feels incompatible with our daily lives.

Withnail chooses the wino-poetry of squalor, his affectations forming a suit of bohemian armour. The only way out for him is to keep going downhill. If Britain loves a peek at other people’s filth, then he’s decided to give them their money’s worth: a closing-down sale, a fire-sale before the shutters are finally closed.

“London is a country coming down from its trip,” says drug dealer Danny (Ralph Brown), in his inimitable, cryptic murmur. “They’re selling hippie wigs in Woolworths. The greatest decade ever known to mankind is almost over.” Were the 1960s an unsustainable experiment? Is that what their friendship is, too?

Nobody wants to be used, but everyone is. For love, sex, money, friendship, fun, as material, as punchbags and as sounding boards. People need each other, and it’s a troublesome thing to admit that the need can be a very selfish thing. London—and the world—needed the ’60s. It needed the liberation, the art, the excitement. The institutions needed questioning; the social order needed upheaval.

But as 1970 approached, as The Beatles neared the end of their time together, as Jimi Hendrix’s death loomed, the question hung around like an unwelcome guest, hours after the party’s over: what do we do now? In Withnail and I, we find one character answering that question, and another unable to. Everything has its end, and perhaps staying past that point, expecting to get the same old pleasure from the same old vices in the same old city, is the behaviour of a fool. It’s also exquisitely human.

Withnail and I is a journey from cautious optimism to the heartbreaking reality that we hold so dear in Britain. We’re a nation in love with our own regrets, and Bruce Robinson’s film reflects that perpetual pull we feel towards the solace of disappointment. The deftness with which it mocks the British tendency to base any and all activities around drinking, coupled with its non-judgmental, affectionate tone, makes for one of the most pitch-perfect comedies of the 1980s, a thoroughly heady brew that still packs a hell of a punch 37 years later.

UK | 1987 | 107 MINUTES | 1.85:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH

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4K Ultra HD Blu-ray Special Features:

  • Brand new 4K restoration from the original negative by Arrow Films, supervised and approved by director of photography Peter Hannan. Hannan has crafted a film of hugely contrasting imagery, and this 4K release does his work justice. From the details of the flat (sausage and chips have never looked so unappetising) to the epic hills of the countryside, this transfer is a joy to behold. Images are vibrant and lifelike (the motorway scenes could have been filmed yesterday), while the film stock’s natural grain is preserved. There are some truly striking images here, like the close-up of “I” looking into the camera, or the silhouettes of the boys as they walk across the fields. It really is the colours that stand out, with the tasteful HDR10 providing richness and depth, especially in the costuming. You could get lost in the red depths of “I’s” jumper.
  • 4K (2160p) Ultra HD Blu-ray presentation in Dolby Vision (HDR10 compatible).
  • Original lossless mono soundtrack. The lossless mono soundtrack is strong and faultless. It took me a moment to recall that the two Jimi Hendrix cuts which feature on the soundtrack are supposed to be slowed down slightly, and that’s honoured here. The music sounds dense and heavy, and the dialogue throughout is crisp and clear. This is particularly important for a film where almost every speaking character has a voice you want to mimic as soon as you hear it. All in all, Arrow have put together another remarkable 4K disc that truly celebrates the authentic look of the film, without cleaning it up too much.
  • Optional lossless 5.1 soundtrack.
  • Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard-of-hearing.
  • Audio commentary by writer-director Bruce Robinson • Audio commentary by critic and writer Kevin Jackson, author of the BFI Modern Classic on Withnail & I.
  • All four original Withnail Weekend documentaries, first screened on Channel 4 in 1999, including The Peculiar Memories of Bruce Robinson, which looks at the director’s career, Withnail & Us, which focuses on the film’s making, and two shorter documentaries, I Demand to Have Some Booze and Withnail on the Pier. It’s a shame this release leans heavily on previously released features. However, if you’re buying this from Arrow for the first time, it’s undoubtedly the strongest of the bunch. The first two films listed are particularly worth watching, as Bruce Robinson remains a surprisingly under-discussed figure in cult cinema.
  • Interview with production designer Michael Pickwoad. Another featurette ported from the previous Arrow release. Still worth seeing, particularly for a film that had such a meticulous set design. It clearly wasn’t easy to make the flat look so rubbish.
  • An appreciation of Withnail & I by Sam Bain, co-creator of Peep Show and Fresh Meat. Amongst the many British comedies I thought of while revisiting the film, Peep Show (2003-2015) was one that kept coming to mind. The influence is clear, and though this isn’t a new feature either, it’s a nice little testimonial.
  • Archival interview with Bruce Robinson. Another interesting but slight addition from the older release.
  • Theatrical trailer.
  • Limited Edition packaging with reversible sleeve featuring two choices of original artwork.
  • Limited Edition perfect bound book featuring writing on the film by Vic Pratt, Anthony Nield, Martin Jones, Neil Mitchell and Mike Sutton.
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Cast & Crew

writer & director: Bruce Robinson.
starring: Richard E. Grant, Paul McGann, Richard Griffiths, Ralph Brown & Michael Elphick.