Pulling Focus: Withnail and I (1987)

Pulling Focus: Withnail and I (1987)26 NOVEMBER 2016 FEATURES, REVIEWS BY SHANE SCOTT-TRAVIS

“The best British comedy ever made? Possibly. A masterpiece? Unquestionably.”– Ali Catterall, Film4

From the tender and impassioned sound of King Curtis’ live recorded cover of Procul Harum’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale” in the opening scene to the finishing drizzly goodbye by the wolf enclosure in Regent’s Park, Withnail and I is a funny, affectionate, and wistful perfection from writer/director Bruce Robinson.

While Robinson has never been a prolific filmmaker and his following films so far have proven a tad unfulfilling by comparison, nothing can temper or depreciate the strikingly idiosyncratic pleasures of his coming out party, Withnail and I. A lamentably sentimental comic chronicle of impoverished living in late-1960s Camden Town, the Swinging Sixties as presented by Robinson is a booze-fuelled, bleak and grimy place of dreggy pubs, unkempt cafes, and offensively filthy kitchens.

“[Withnail and I] achieves a kind of transcendence in its gloom. It is uncompromisingly, sincerely, itself. It is not a lesson or a lecture, it is funny but in a consistent way that it earns, and it is unforgettably acted. Bruce Robinson saw such times, survived them and remembers them not with bitterness but fidelity. In Withnail, he creates one of the iconic figures in modern films. Most of us may have known someone like Withnail.”

– Roger Ebert

Withnail and I ostensibly tells the semi-autobiographical tale of two down-at-heel out-of-work actors. There’s Marwood (Paul McGann), the “I” of the title, whom Robinson closely modelled after himself, a rather restless, hapless, and anxious young man, at least when we first find him. Then there’s Withnail (Richard E. Grant), the acerbic, theatrical, troublingly alcoholic best friend to Marwood. [ . . . ]

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