Starring debuts #7: Richard E. Grant in Withnail and I (1987)

Big-budget action maestro Michael Bay could probably learn a thing or two from Withnail.

Namely, that if you get the characterization and dialogue right, you don’t need any explosions or mayhem to make a great movie. After all, what does the titular character accomplish during the 107 minutes of this cult classic?

He tries to do the washing-up. He reads about a drug-taking shot-putter in the newspaper (“Jeff Wode is feeling better!”) He covers his scrawny, undernourished body in Deep Heat to ward off the cold in his dingy apartment. He shouts at startled schoolgirls. He unsuccessfully orders cake and objects to piscine threats, real or imagined.

And, of course, he drinks.

Doesn’t sound like an awful lot, does it?

And yet, Richard E. Grant’s magnificent portrayal of this pasty-faced waster in a checked overcoat has etched itself into our hearts, turning him into one of the most loved (and quote worthy) characters in the history of film. Quite simply, if you haven’t seen this splendidly pathetic creature respond to a pub tough by screwing up his face and pleading “My wife’s having a bay-bee” then there’s a hole in your life that you need to fix now.

From the moment he’s introduced on a gloomy staircase clutching a near-empty bottle of red, Withnail looks like a seedy vampire. But this guy doesn’t want to suck your blood. He’s such a coward he’d probably faint at the sight of it. No, he prefers that other red stuff, wine. Saying that, he’ll happily consume any booze, as well as heroic amounts of mind-altering drugs.

And if neither is to hand?

Lighter fluid.

Luckily, this is not a cautionary tale, let alone a story of redemption. No woman enters stage left trying to save him with her love. Exasperated parents, colleagues or publicans don’t get to wag fingers. AA is never mentioned.

Withnail learns nothing throughout. He’s half-drunk when we meet him and by the time he forlornly wanders off into the rain after delivering his heartbreaking soliloquy he’s still swigging from a bottle. There’s not one moment in which he shows the slightest concern about his gargantuan intake or even reflects on it. Sure, he might complain about its effect (“I feel like a pig shat in my head”), but that’s not quite the same, is it?

We’re given no real clue why he drinks to excess. Depression would be a good bet, perhaps triggered by an acting career that at the age of twenty-nine hasn’t even started let alone petered out. All he seems to have is Marwood (McGann), a pursuit of oblivion and a pronounced fondness for bullshit and winding people up. There’s no lie he won’t tell for amusement or gain, whether it’s claiming he’s ex-army, a Country Life journalist doing an article on traveling tinkers and milkmen, or his best mate is a ‘toilet trader’ to ensure his gay uncle will lend them the use of a country cottage.

Perhaps the only time he begins to experience more genuine emotion is when Marwood’s acting career looks like it’s about to get a significant leg up. You can see the panic on his face and hear the fear in his voice as he offers congratulations. These bitter-sweet moments help give the movie its heart because you know Withnail’s about to lose his only friend, the painful knowledge surely only resulting in a desire to pop open yet another bottle.

Throughout it all, Grant nails every scene, whether he’s fishing with a double-barreled shotgun or grandstanding in a Lake District cafe. This man deserves the finest wines available to humanity, having created a pessimistic character so vivid, so alive and so human that Withnail is now routinely recognized as one of the greatest British films ever made.

And if a sequel is ever made, let’s hope Michael Bay doesn’t get the job. I don’t think I’d be able to bear it if Withnail were turned into an FBI chemical weapons specialist who has to save an entire city from bad guys.

About Dave Franklin

Dismayed by the state of post-2000 cinema, Dave Franklin hasn't visited a movie house in more than a decade. He can usually be found in a dingy room dressed up as Marilyn Monroe, pining for the lost days of 70's cinema. Saying that, he will visit you for an appropriate fee to read excruciating excerpts from his novels.