Mark Fisher once described the 1970s as an immense collective comedown from the high of the 1960s. As economies began to stagnate and counterculture lost its edge, a great cultural malaise began to set in. No film captures this sense of the end of an era better than Bruce Robinson’s Withnail and I (1987).
Set in Britain in 1969, it follows two out-of-work actors, Withnail and Marwood, through lives filled with drink, drugs, poverty, and madness. In an autumn bout of unemployment, they decide to escape the city to stay in The Lake District at the cottage of Withnail’s eccentric uncle Monty. There they find themselves in more trouble than where they started, from the locals, the terrain, and from Monty himself.
Withnail and I is about living out of time. Monty, Withnail and Marwood belong to a dying class of ex-public school aesthetes failing to come to terms with the modern world. Each character represents a different reaction to this situation: Monty descends into fantasy and nostalgia, Withnail into cynicism and alcoholism, and Marwood into paranoia and anxiety. Marwood’s ideal of the escape to the country is shattered when Penrith proves to be just as hostile as London, whilst being even more unforgiving and unfamiliar. The film, like its characters, exists in opposition to its time. Paul McGann, who plays the neurotic Marwood, once said that the film stuck out precisely because it rejected the stylistic and thematic concerns of its own era.
The film is a comedy, and a lot of its humour comes from the first-rate comic timing of Richard E. Grant (Withnail) and Ralph Brown (Danny). Much of the humour, however, comes from precisely this place of despair and isolation. The film itself sometimes doesn’t know how to properly draw the line between its comedy and tragedy. The character of Monty, for example, is too often played for laughs, despite being so clearly pitiful. Behind the tone of homophobic mocking is a story of repressed desire and wasted youth, which is criminally underexplored.
The character of the slimy drug dealer Danny, whose presence bookends the main drama of the film, explores the absurdity of the era from a different perspective. It is he who, towards the end of film, outlines its thesis most explicitly when he says, ‘They’re selling hippy wigs in Woolworths, man. The greatest decade in the history of mankind is over and we have failed to paint it black’. The failure of the countercultural dream is manifested in Danny’s manipulative hippy talk, his cynical business schemes, and excessive use of dangerous drugs.
The tragedy of Withnail and I is that we, the audience, are made to realise that this sense of loss has not been overcome. While Marwood and Withnail are supposed to be living in poverty and squalor, a flat like theirs in Camden could now only be afforded by the wealthy. The death of the ’60s dream of a less hostile and more egalitarian society, which the film highlights, now seems less like a bold notion and more like an obvious fact.
Image credits: Karl and Ali via Geograph