Monday, January 16, 2012

Bruce Robinson | Withnail & I

the panic
by Douglas Messerli

Bruce Robinson (writer and director) Withnail & I / 1987

 Withnail and "I" (the latter once in the script referred to as Marwood) are young, out of work actors, living in a Georgian flat in Camden Town, mostly without heat. In between their trips to collect unemployment benefits and attempts to gain "coins" to feed the gas and electricity meters, they primarily survive on alcohol and drugs. The last time they seemed to eat was so long ago that, at the beginning of the film, Marwood (Paul McGann) is terrified that something under their filthy dishes is alive.

     Marwood begins the film—which I first saw upon its release in 1987 and viewed again the other day—with an almost Woody Allen-like sense of high anxiety:

                             Withnail: I've some extremely distressing news.
                             Marwood: I don't want to hear it. I don't want to hear
                                     anything. Oh God, it's a nightmare, I tell you.
                                     It's a nightmare.
                             Withnail: We've just run out of wine. What are we gonna do
                                     about it?
                             Marwood: I don't know, I don't know. Oh God, I don't feel
                                     good. My thumbs have gone weird! I'm in the middle of a
                                     bloody overdose! Oh God. My heart's beating like a
                                     fucked clock! I feel dreadful, I feel really dreadful!
                             Withnail: So do I, as does everybody. Look at my tongue, it's
                                     wearing a yellow sock. Sit down for Christ's sake,
                                     what's the matter with you? Eat some sugar.

So opens this whirlwind of a film wherein an unlikely pair stumble through their lives in a constant fog of apprehension and terror of the consequences. Like most young people, these two are a mess of contradictions, feeling their way through life like blind beings.

     As their witty discussions continue, however, the audience is drawn into their alien world, particularly by the flamboyant insanity of Oxford-educated Withnail (Richard E. Grant) who, it soon becomes apparent, exaggerates everything and perceives no difference between truth and lies. Throughout most of this dark comic tale, it is the differences of personality—Withnail's brilliant self-pity and Marwood's terrified passivity—that utterly enchants us. It is as if Neil Simon's stale comic couple, Felix and Oscar of his The Odd Couple, had been rewritten by a hip Oscar Wilde. Indeed one of the utter charms of Withnail's character is that he is almost a Wildean creation, a man who without an acting job spends his life in an imaginary play of his own making.

     Behind this comic surface, however, are darker stories, one concerning the British class system. Despite his feeling of the injustice of society—"Free to those that can afford it, very expensive to those that can't"—Whitnail is, in reality, a wealthy-born snob, who is so embarrassed about Marwood's more common background when they visit his rich Uncle Monty (Richard Griffiths) he lies, suggesting that his friend has gone to "the other place," presumably Eton instead of Harrow, which both he and his uncle have attended.

     They have dropped into his Uncle Monty's to ask him if they can borrow his county cottage for the weekend, hoping to get some good country air, food, and perhaps even sleep into their systems. Monty agrees. But the cottage turns out to be a run-down stone building, with little food and no heat. Although the countryside is truly beautiful, the weather is inclement, with heavy rains and fogs. The neighbors are downright unfriendly.

                           Withnail: This place is uninhabitable.
                           Marwood: Give it a chance. It's got to warm up.
                           Withnail: Warm up? We may as well sit round this
                                            cigarette. This is ridiculous. We'll be found
                                            dead in here next spring.

     Gradually, we discover just how divorced Withnail is from this and other realities. Attempting to buy food, the couple approach a local farmer, whom Withnail keeps asking "Are you the farmer?"  Marwood interjects: "Stop saying that Withnail, of course he's the fucking farmer!" Later Withnail offends a local poacher by calling him, again by type, "The Poacher." It is as if human beings were simply what they did for a living.

Despite the two men's close friendship, moreover, Withnail is willing to sacrifice his friend at the slightest of incursions. When they visit a local pub, an Irishman calls Marwood a "ponce," in response to which Marwood suggests they leave the place. Withnail challenges the Irishman, but when the man comes forward to face the challenge, Withnail dodges:

                             Withnail: I have a heart condition. I have a heart condition.
                                             If you hit me it's murder.
                             Irishman: I'll murder the pair of yers!
                             Withnail: [close to tears] My wife is having a baby!
                                             Listen, I don't know what my fucking
                                             acquaintance did to upset you but it's nothing
                                             to do with me. I suggest you both go outside
                                             and discuss it sensibly in the street.

A few seconds later they both race from the pub, terrorized.

      Withnail's lack of loyalty and courage is revealed again when, as the two cross a field, they accidently leave open a gate from which a nearby bull eagerly exits. Withnail jumps to the other side of the fence, leaving Marwood to chase the bull back within.

     One wonders why Marwood, far more sane and capable than his friend, continues to hang around. What is the glue that keeps these two together?

      One might analyze their relationship in many ways. On the simplest level it is simply that Marwood may find Withnail dazzlingly entertaining, a perfect balance for his less adventuresome and somewhat passive behavior. But to me it also suggests that there is something deeper here, something about which the film (and by extension, the filmmaker) never quite comes to terms with.

      Throughout the film, Marwood becomes particularly panicky when anything sexual occurs, the earlier scene of his being accosted as a "ponce" being only one of a series of examples. Monty, Withnail's gay uncle, is obviously hot for Marwood, particularly after Withnail has falsely told him his friend is gay also. In the middle of the night, the two hear noises. Fearing a break-in by the unfriendly poacher, Withnail dives into Marwood's bed resulting in an even more hysterical Marwood, who is told by Withnail that the intruder is coming for him.

     The intruder, it turns out, is Uncle Monty himself, who has decided to join them in the country, and has brought wine and provisions so that they might properly eat. His real intention, however, is to "bugger" Marwood even if it means "burglary." In short, he attends to rape him and enters his room that evening to accomplish the deed. Panic-stricken, Marwood turns the tables so to speak by proclaiming that he and Withnail are a gay couple, and wishes to remain faithful. The foolish and conventionally-minded uncle apologizes and leaves the room, and the next morning, his house.

    Escaping the rape, Marwood rushes to Withnail:

                           Marwood: Withnail, you bastard, wake up. Wake up you
                                      bastard, or I burn this bastard bed down!
                           Withnail: I deny all accusations. [opens his eyes]
                                           What do you want?
                           Marwood: I have just narrowly avoided having a
                                            buggering, and have come in here with the
                                            express intention of wishing one upon you.

No such reciprocal action takes place. And in the morning, Marwood, reading Monty's note of apology, feels sorry for the man. But the evening's events have clearly been more traumatic in their relationship than all the lies, lack of courage, class snobbery, and plain befuddled thinking that has come before. One can only wonder, accordingly, whether his lie reveals a somewhat desired truth. At the heart of this film, I argue, is a terror of sex, particularly of gay sexuality.

      A telegram offering Marwood an acting role, sends the couple back to London, with the drunken and license-free Withnail at the wheel of the car "to make up time"—an act, at least in one sense of the meaning, highly desired by his now rejected companion—while Marwood, for the first time in the film, sleeps. The inevitable occurs with Withnail's arrest, his imaginary time haltedThe final scene represents Marwood's leave-taking. Having shorn his curls and shaved, he suddenly looks more mature, as the sets off to the station. Withnail again attempts to keep him near—to "make up time" once more—by offering to share a bottle that he has stolen from Monty's wine cellar. But Marwood is insistent about leaving. So Withnail joins him part of the way, bottle in hand. The departure is sudden with little emotion on the part of either man. But, as Marwood disappears into the distance, Withnail turns toward animals in the nearby zoo of Regent's Park, reciting, quite powerfully, Act 2, Scene ii of Hamlet.

                          I have of late—but wherefore I know not—lost all my mirth;
                          and indeed it goes so heavily with my disposition that this
                          goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory, this
                          excellent canopy, the air, look you, this brave o'erhanging
                          firmament, this majestical roof fretted with gold fire, why, it
                          appeareth nothing to be but a foul and pestilent congregation of
                          vapours. What a piece of work is man! How noble in reason!
                          How infinite in faculties! How like an angel in apprehension.
                          How like a god! The beauty of the world! The paragon of
                          animals! And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?
                          Man delights not me: no, nor women neither. Nor women

Shakespeare's words say it all: Withnail has just lost the love of his life, and with it the joy of living. His future life, we realize, might well contain the isolation and poverty of St. Francis of Assissi.

     Bruce Robinson is a stunning writer and director in this work. In his own life, Robinson, apparently heterosexual, has been married twice and has children. The Withnail character is based on his youthful friend, the actor Vivian MacKerrell, who died of throat cancer (probably caused by drinking lighter fluid, as he does in the film). The character of Monty is based on the personal sexual advances against Robinson by director Franco Zeffirelli as Robinson played the character of Benvolio in Zeffirelli's production of Romeo and Juliet.

     But even autobiographical characters are things other than real human beings. The situations of this film, Marwood's open commitment to Whitnail and his own lie about their relationship, along with the extremely panicky reactions to any suggestions of sex, seem to suggest a character who, while having turned a corner in leaving Whitnail to become a more responsible person in the society, may not yet have completely come to terms with his own time and his sexual being.

January 14. 2012

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