By obvious definition, “cult movies” are not for everyone. Usually “little” movies, they’re polarizing slices of entertainment that appeal to a select audience who sees something wonderful revealed to them within the context of the movie. The “cult” that grows around a particular film will defend it to the death and decry anyone who “doesn’t get it” to be woefully unhip or, at the very least, pitiable because their lives are so very lacking without embracing the truths contained within this particular movie. I’m not discussing bit “cultural phenomenon” movies like The Rocky Horror Picture Show or even something larger like the Star Wars series—each has its easily-recognizable fanbase that has, in the case of the former, elevated it to a rite of passage and a way of life and, in the case of the latter, transformed it into a veritable religion. Small, under-the-radar movies like El Topo, Eraserhead even Monty Python and the Holy Grail, movies whose midnight screenings were attended by devotees before the ubiquity of home video—movies filled with in-jokes and obscure imagery that only a select few will “get”. Often, the cults themselves are aided by a particular film’s initial box office failure because it allows the viewer to “discover” the movie, either by word-of-mouth or accidentally. Finding others who love the film as dearly is part of the sense of belonging this movie brings with it. It also provides the much-needed elitism to allow the viewer to feel part of an exclusive club, removed from the masses.
Bruce Robinson’s debut film Withnail and I is one such movie. Heralded as “one of Britain's biggest cult films” by many reviewers (particularly Jamie Russell in his 2003 BBC article), Withnail and I, ostensibly a comedy, came and went from theaters without much fanfare in the mid-80s and was rediscovered a few years later by what has become a rabid fanbase, whose affection for the film leaves many scratching their heads (just visit the Amazon and Netflix reviews which provide the best cross-section of human culture ever, where cineastes rub elbows with those who only recently discovered tools).
Based on Robinson’s own experiences as a down-and-out actor living in a communal dwelling, Withnail and I is a series of episodic adventures of the title characters, a pair of disheveled and aimless actors who while their time waiting for audition callback by drinking heavily and railing at the injustices of the world. The gaunt, half-mad Withnail (Richard E. Grant playing “proto-manic”) comes from money and cannot comprehend that the world will not bend to his entitlement, forcing him to live in squalor and refusing to acknowledge him as a great artist. Paul McGann’s “and I” (never given a name but referred to as “Marwood” in the script), is in the same boat but is only slightly more rational about it, in between his own panic attacks and over-reactions. With shot nerves and empty pockets, they pool their unemployment checks and head to a country cottage owned by Withnail’s flamboyant “Uncle Monty” (Harry Potter's Richard Griffith).
[Here's an example of cult fun to be had: watching Mr. Dursley try to mount Dr. Who.]
The cottage proves to be little better than their filthy flat, bereft of fuel or food. Its nearest neighbor is owned by a belligerent farmer and the nearest town is difficult to get to in their disaster of a car. They spend a good deal of their time foraging for food, screaming at the world, and, in Marwood’s case, dodging the advances of Uncle Monty—who believes that Marwood is also gay, thanks to Withnail’s cruel sense of humor. In the end, one receives notice that a job has come to him and he must leave the other behind, to wallow in his own misery and injustice.
Nearly plotless and filled with insufferable characters—the worst of which are the title characters—Withnail and I can be viewed as an interesting study of wasted youth and British class warfare during the “greatest decade in history” (i.e. the ‘60s, as it is dubbed by Danny, their melancholy drug dealer friend, who mourns as the decade comes to an end). As unpleasant as Withnail and Marwood can get—they’re both cowardly, self-centered bastards, and are the masters of their own demise—they both come off as real people. Everyone knows someone like these two—with some introspection, many of us will even cop to having been one of these two (although I doubt any of us would admit to still being like them—some truths are just too difficult to face). The movie is fascinatingly prescient for later slacker movies like Reality Bites, not to mention the recent deluge of plotless “mumblecore” movies that spill out of film festivals every year. Character studies of aimless, despicable people are nothing new under the sun, of course, but Withnail and I has it’s own energy to set it apart.
Which brings us to the “cult” part of the movie. While amusing at times, for those who don’t “get it”, Withnail and I can be an excruciating experience. While one can identify with the main characters at times, it’s nigh-impossible to sympathize with them. The more farcial aspects of the film often come off as clumsy or offensive —Uncle Monty forcing himself on Marwood, for instance, meant to be hysterical seems mean and more than a bit sad after twenty-plus years of forced politically-correct sensitivity training. Marwood’s desperation in diverting the man’s unwanted attention just borders on gentle but it’s so fear-based—insulting Uncle Monty may mean being evicted from the house—that it rings realistically true and thematically hollow at the same time. There are, indeed, some terrific lines—“We’ve gone on holiday by accident!” and “We want the finest wines humanly available and we want them now!”—and they’re delivered not as “lines” but as dialogue, which is also nice, but the pace is deadly, particularly after you realize that the movie is as bereft of hope as its main characters. The whole movie is one long dark tea-time of the soul, from the dour set dressing to the endless English rainfall,
And the movie has legions of followers for just these reasons. There’s even an ill-advised drinking game built around it where a viewer attempts to keep up with Withnail’s alcoholic appetite—which, of course, could be fatal to the inexperienced drinker (particularly the scene in which a crazed Withnail downs a can of lighter fluid). Those outside the cult, however, find the movie baffling and appalling. Many viewers have wondered if it appeals only to the British but there are plenty of Brits who abhor the movie. As far as I go, it took me several tries over the course of years to actually get through the movie and even my final successful attempt was a struggle. One could make the argument that the movie’s autobiographical nature—Uncle Monty, for instance, is reportedly based on director Franco Zeffirelli who made advances on Robinson during his work as “Benvolio” on Romeo and Juliet; Withnail is based on a friend and actor Vivian MacKerrell who did die from throat cancer likely brought on from drinking lighter fluid—keeps the casual viewer at arm’s length but, really, it’s simply a matter of either liking it or not. If it makes you feel any better, producer Denis O’Brien, who had a renowned instinct for comedy, felt the movie had “no discernable jokes” and tried to shut the movie down several times. In interviews, Robinson reveals himself to be a bit of a “Withnail” himself (i.e. a “terrible cunt”) and is notoriously a difficult person to work or even deal with. But if he were more like Marwood, who is supposedly a fictional Robinson, how much better would that really be?
[In a bit of “Six Degrees”, Robinson and Grant would reteam for the much wackier How To Get Ahead in Advertising; Withnail and I has been compared to Terry Gilliam’s film version of Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas; Robinson has been signed to direct the upcoming film adaptation of Thompson’s The Rum Diaries. Ain’t the universe neat?]
Well-photographed and edited, very well-acted, appreciated enough to receive a DVD release from The Criterion Collection, Withnail and I deserves all of its accolades and all of its detractions. The nice thing about movies like this, if you don’t like them, you never have to watch them again.