Calling Bruce Robinson’s directorial debut, Withnail & I (1987), autobiographical is hardly overstating the case. The film looks in on the lives of Withnail and someone called “I” (though you can glimpse I’s actual name “Marwood” at one point on a telegram, the character “I” has no name in the film). The story follows the two out-of-work thespians for a period of time leading up to their inevitable separation. The time frame of Withnail & I—1969—fits neatly between Robinson’s two acting gigs in 1968 and 1970 (the independent The Other People (1968) and the more mainstream The Music Lovers (1970)), and Paul McGann as the character “I” is the living image of Robinson at that time.
Withnail (played by Richard E. Grant) is based on Robinson’s former roommate, actor Vivian MacKerrell—who, like Robinson, was unemployed in 1969. MacKerrell’s only claim to fame appears to rest on having lived with Robinson and having been immortalized by Richard E. Grant in this wonderfully funny, bitterly sad film. I can think of worse fates. It is, after all, Robinson’s fascination with MacKerrell/Withnail that is at the core of the story—to the degree that there is a story. The central set piece of the film is a fairly miserable holiday in England’s Lake District at Withnail’s outrageously gay Uncle Monty’s (Richard Griffiths) cottage. Mostly, the film is about Withnail’s bottomless resentment of everything and everyone in the world—and his deep sense of entitlement.
Much of what happens in the film is very funny indeed. Griffith’s Uncle Monty may be pure caricature, but his flamboyant failed actor (“There comes a time when you realize that you will never play the Dane”) with a lecherous eye for “I” is irresistible. The film even manages to find humor in Withnail’s attempts at getting drunk on lighter fluid and staying warm by coating himself in the Brit equivalent of Ben Gay. But Withnail is not a comic drunk. He’s a sad, angry man that you feel Robinson wishes he could really have known rather than observed—but the film, like Robinson, can only suggest what’s at the core of Withnail, and that’s exactly what keeps him fascinating.