Withnail and I is a 1987 British buddy film written and directed by Bruce Robinson, based on an unpublished, semi-autobiographical novel, based in turn on his experiences as an actor during such incidents as the filming of Franco Zeffirelli‘s Romeo and Juliet. It stars Richard E. Grant, Paul McGann, and Richard Griffiths. It also features Ralph Brown and Michael Elphick.
The film had George Harrison as executive producer through his company, HandMade Films. It has become a cult classic. Withnail (Grant) “and I” (McGann–actually, the character’s name is Marwood as indicated in the script, as well as discovered, by a watchful eye, written on the cover of a telegram, though we’d never know, since he’s never referred to by name anywhere in the film) are two struggling young actors who, after an intense experience of being stoned and drunk over a period of several days and nights, decide to spend a weekend in the country to rejuvenate…only to stumble into other problems.
Here are some quotes:
Withnail: [reading from the paper] “In a world exclusive interview, 33-year-old shotputter Geoff Woade, who weighs 317 pounds, admitted taking massive doses of anabolic steroids, drugs banned in sport. ‘He used to get in bad tempers and act up,’ said his wife. ‘He used to pick on me. But now he’s stopped, he’s much better in our sex life and in our general life.'” Jesus Christ, this huge, thatched head with its earlobes and cannonball is now considered sane. “Geoff Woade is feeling better and is now prepared to step back into society and start tossing his orb about.” Look at him. Look at Geoff Woade. His head must weigh fifty pounds on its own. Imagine the size of his balls. Imagine getting into a fight with the fucker!
Marwood: Please, I don’t feel good.
Withnail: That’s what you’d say, but that wouldn’t wash with Geoff. No, he’d like a bit of pleading. Add spice to it. In fact, he’d probably tell you what he was going to do before he did it. “I’m going to pull your head off.” “Oh no, please, don’t pull my head off.” “I’m going to pull your head off, because I don’t like your head.”
“I demand to have some booze!” –Withnail
“Even a stopped clock tells the right time twice a day, and for once I’m inclined to believe Withnail is right. We are indeed drifting into the arena of the unwell. Making enemies of our own futures.” –Marwood, voiceover
“Speed is like a dozen transatlantic flights without ever getting off the plane. Time change. You lose, you gain. Makes no difference so long as you keep taking the pills. But sooner or later you’ve got to get out because it’s crashing. Then all at once those frozen hours melt out through the nervous system and seep out the pores.” –Marwood, voiceover
“Danny’s here. Headhunter to his friends. Headhunter to everyone. He doesn’t have any friends. The only people he converses with are his clients, and occasionally the police. The purveyor of rare herbs and proscribed chemicals is back. Will we never be set free?” –Marwood, voiceover
“You’re looking very beautiful, man. Have you been away? Saint Peter preached the epistles to the apostles looking like that.” –Danny, to Marwood, who has come out of the bathroom wearing a towel
“I don’t advise a haircut, man. All hairdressers are in the employment of the government. Hair are your aerials. They pick up signals from the cosmos and transmit them directly into the brain. This is the reason bald-headed men are uptight.” –Danny
“Ponce!” –Irishman in pub, to Marwood (because he has perfume-smelling boots)
“I could hardly piss straight with fear. Here was a man with 3/4 of an inch of brain who’d taken a dislike to me. What had I done to offend him? I don’t consciously offend big men like this. And this one has a definite imbalance of hormone in him. Get any more masculine than him and you’d have to live up a tree.” –Marwood, voiceover
“‘I fuck arses’? Who fucks arses? Maybe he fucks arses! Maybe he’s written this in some moment of drunken sincerity! I’m in considerable danger here, I must get out of here at once.” –Marwood
“Oh! you little traitors. I think the carrot infinitely more fascinating than the geranium. The carrot has mystery. Flowers are essentially tarts. Prostitutes for the bees. There is a certain je ne sais quoi – oh, so very special – about a firm, young carrot…Excuse me…” –Uncle Monty
“It is the most shattering experience of a young man’s life when one morning he awakes and quite reasonably says to himself, ‘I will never play the Dane.'” –Uncle Monty
“I been watching you, especially you, prancing like a tit. You want working on, boy!” –Jake the Poacher
[Withnail and Marwood are lying in bed together, listening to a man coming inside the cottage. Withnail is cowering under the covers] Withnail: [whispering] He’s going into your room. It’s you he wants. Offer him yourself. [the bedroom door slowly opens and the intruder enters with a torch…screwing his eyes shut in terror, moaning] We mean no harm!
Monty: Oh, my boys, my boys, forgive me.
Marwood: [relieved] Monty! Monty, Monty!
Withnail: MONTY, YOU TERRIBLE CUNT!
Monty: Forgive me, it was inconsiderate of me not to have telegrammed.
Withnail: WHAT ARE YOU DOING PROWLING AROUND IN THE MIDDLE OF THE FUCKING NIGHT?
“The older order changeth, yielding place to new. God fulfils himself in many ways. And soon, I suppose, I shall be swept away by some vulgar little tumour. Oh, my boys, my boys, we’re at the end of an age. We live in a land of weather forecasts and breakfasts that set in. Shat on by Tories, shovelled up by Labour. And here we are, we three, perhaps the last island of beauty in the world.” –Uncle Monty
Monty: Now, which of you is going to be a splendid fellow and go down to the Rolls for the rest of the wine?
Withnail: [getting up] I will.
Marwood: [getting up at the same time] No, I’d better go. I want to see about digging the car out anyway.
Monty: But we have my car, dear boy.
Marwood: Yes, but if it rains, we’re buggered. [realises he’s used the wrong word] I mean…
“I can never touch meat until it’s cooked. As a youth I used to weep in butcher’s shops.” –Uncle Monty
“If you think you’re going to have a weekend’s indulgence up here at his expense, which means him having a weekend’s indulgence up here at my expense, you got another thing coming.” –Marwood, to Withnail, about Uncle Monty
“I think you’ve been punished enough. I think we’d better release you from the légumes and transfer your talents to the meat.” –Uncle Monty, after having amorously put his hand on Marwood’s arm as he peels vegetables
Monty: Laisse-moi, respirer, longtemps, longtemps, l’odeur de tes cheveux. Oh, Baudelaire. Brings back such memories of Oxford. Oh, Oxford…
Marwood: [voiceover] Followed by yet another anecdote about his sensitive crimes in a punt with a chap called Norman who had red hair and a book of poetry stained with the butter drips from crumpets.
Monty: There can be no true beauty without decay.
Withnail: Legium pro Britannia.
Monty: How right you are, how right you are. We live in a kingdom of reigns where royalty comes in gangs.
Monty: You mustn’t blame him. You mustn’t blame yourself. I know how you feel and how difficult it is. And that’s why you mustn’t hold back, let it ruin your youth as I nearly did over Eric. It’s like a tide. Give in to it, boy. Go with it. It’s society’s crime, not ours.
Marwood: I’m not homosexual, Monty.
Monty: Yes, you are! Of course you are! You’re simply blackmailing your emotions to avoid the realities of your relationship with him.
Marwood: What are you talking about?
Monty: You love him. And it isn’t his fault he cannot love you any more than it’s mine that I adore you.
“I mean to have you, even if it must be burglary!” –Uncle Monty, to Marwood
Marwood: I have just narrowly avoided having a buggering. And I’ve come in here with the express intention of wishing one on you! Having said that, I now intend to leave for London.
Withnail: Hold on, don’t let your imagination run away with you…
Marwood: Imagination! I have just finished fighting a naked man! How dare you tell him I’m a toilet trader?!
Withnail: Tactical necessity. If I hadn’t told him you were active we’d never have got the cottage.
Danny: The joint I’m about to roll requires a craftsman. It can utilise up to 12 skins. It is called a Camberwell Carrot.
Marwood: It’s impossible to use 12 papers on one joint.
Danny: It’s impossible to make a Camberwell Carrot with anything less.
Withnail: Who says it’s a Camberwell Carrot?
Danny: I do. I invented it in Camberwell, and it looks like a carrot.
“London is a country coming down from its trip. We are 91 days from the end of this decade and there’s gonna be a lot of refugees.” –Danny
“I’m getting the FEAR!” –Marwood, while high
“You have done something to your brain. You have made it high. If I lay 10 mils of diazepam on you, it will do something else to your brain. You will make it low. Why trust one drug and not the other? That’s politics, innit?” –Danny, to Marwood
“If you’re hanging on to a rising balloon, you’re presented with a difficult decision — let go before it’s too late or hang on and keep getting higher, posing the question: how long can you keep a grip on the rope? They’re selling hippie wigs in Woolworth’s, man. The greatest decade in the history of mankind is over. And as Presuming Ed here has so consistently pointed out, we have failed to paint it black.” –Danny
“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 most excellent canopy, the air — look you, this brave o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire — why, it appeareth nothing to me but a foul and pestilent congregation of vapors. What a piece of work is a 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 woman neither… nor woman neither.” –Withnail, imperfectly quoting Hamlet
A recurring theme in this film is a sense of ‘the end of the world as we know it.’ This quasi-apocalyptic sense comes in many forms: it’s late 1969, so “The greatest decade in the history of mankind is over.” Associated with the end of the 1960s is the soon-to-come end of welfare-oriented capitalism, that is, the Keynesian post-war economic era that would end with the 1973 oil crisis and be replaced with the neoliberal era inaugurated by such politicians as Thatcher and Reagan. Finally, there’s the end of Withnail’s and Marwood’s partying, boozing, and getting stoned together. England is “coming down from its trip.”
Indeed, at the beginning of the film we see Marwood coming down from a lengthy period of getting wasted with Withnail, looking exhausted. He is also a hyper-agitated sort, given to intense fears of imminent catastrophe (“My thumbs have gone weird! I’m in the middle of a bloody overdose! My heart’s beating like a fucked clock! I feel dreadful, I feel really dreadful.”) His preoccupation with survival makes him representative of Eros, the life instinct.
Withnail, on the other hand, is self-destructive in the extreme, not only drinking like a fish and doing drugs to excess, but also drinking toxic substances like lighter fluid or possibly even antifreeze [!] when he’s desperate for more booze. He almost always seems to have a wine bottle in his hand. He’ll drive drunk, not at all caring if the cops nab him. He thus personifies Thanatos, the death instinct, and is Marwood’s opposite.
Since Marwood represents Robinson, who played Benvolio in Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet, and since Robinson at the time of filming had to fight off gay Zeffirelli’s aggressive sexual advances (as represented by those of Montague Withnail against Marwood), the title Withnail and I can be seen as a parallel of Romeo and Juliet, the story of two star-cross’d lovers who tragically cannot be together.
Thus, Uncle Monty is the Romeo (or a Romeo…see below) Montague of this film, and Marwood is the would-be Juliet. In this connection, the made-up surname of Withnail (inspired by an admired childhood friend of Robinson’s, whose name was Withnall, which Robinson misspelt in–as I see it–a Freudian slip), or “with nail,” as some old friends of mine who introduced me to the film mispronounced it, can be seen as a phallic symbol.
That “nail” stabbing, or threatening to stab, into Marwood can be in the form of Monty’s attempted homosexual rape (“burglary”), or in the form of young Withnail’s exasperating personality and behaviour, ultimately making Marwood want to distance himself from the hopeless drunk. Thus young Withnail “and I” are opposites, just as there are many opposites in Romeo and Juliet, as I observed in my analysis of that play.
The two young men are fated never to be together, just as Romeo’s and Juliet’s love is tragically thwarted by fate, because of the conflict between irresponsible, Thanatos-driven Withnail and career-focused, Eros-driven Marwood. Similarly, Uncle Monty can never have Marwood because the latter isn’t gay (or at least isn’t consciously aware of having homosexual feelings…see below). The conflict between the Montagues and the Capulets ensures that Romeo’s and Juliet’s love won’t last in this world, either.
Though Marwood has been getting drunk and stoned with young Withnail, because he knows that the two of them are “drifting into the arena of the unwell,” he is losing his taste for the world of partying. He wants to ‘choose life’ and be straight in a capitalist world that is soon to phase out of its welfare life support system.
As struggling actors, they have a filthy apartment in Camden Town with little food and lots of rats and “matter” growing in the sink. They need to get away and restore their health, but the only means available to them is to take advantage of Withnail’s wealthy uncle, his overtly gay, corpulent, silver-tongued Uncle Monty…who will agree to Withnail’s mooching only if Monty can hope to take advantage of pretty-boy Marwood.
So Uncle Monty, with his cottage out in the country, his money, and all the food and wine he can provide for poor Withnail and Marwood, can be seen to personify the British welfare state, and therefore the liberal wing of the ruling class. Oh, sure, Monty will help out his two boys, but with strings attached. Similarly, the bourgeois state may be generous to the poor if it wants to, but one day it will fuck them.
Bourgeois liberal politicians may create ‘generous’ social programs for the poor (as symbolized in the film by Uncle Monty’s largesse to Withnail and Marwood that weekend), but the same class structure stays intact (wealthy Monty stays wealthy, and the two young men stay poor). That generosity doesn’t last long, either, as it hadn’t between 1945 and 1973, as symbolized by the brief, “delightful weekend in the country.”
Marwood’s only hope for survival, his major preoccupation, is to join the capitalist system, which he does at the end of the film by accepting an acting job to play the leading role in a play, cutting his hair short (i.e., betraying the hippie counterculture), and leaving London (and Withnail, of course) for Manchester. It’s fitting that Marwood is an actor, and a successful one, unlike Withnail; for in order to succeed in capitalism, one must learn how to pretend, to put on an act.
In order to escape from the miseries of the world, the two young men use drinking and drugs as a manic defence; hence their friendship with fellow stoner Danny (Brown), who comments on the “uptight” men of the capitalist system, those “bald” men. As for hair, he notes how capitalists are “selling hippie wigs in Woolworth’s.” Just like the selling of Che Guevara T-shirts, capitalism can accommodate and absorb anything, even the counterculture and socialism.
The drinking and drugs seem to be an escape from not only the “hideousness” of modern life, as Withnail calls it in the car on the way to the cottage. I suspect that Withnail and Marwood are repressed homosexuals. In fact, Danny, who sees Marwood in a towel after a shower and calls him “beautiful,” could be doping to escape facing up to repressed homosexuality, too.
To understand my meaning, we have to be sure of what is meant by the ‘repressed.’ It’s not just about suppressing unacceptable feelings while being aware of them; it’s about pushing them into the unconscious, making oneself totally unaware of them. The feelings do manage to be expressed, to come out to the surface, but in ways totally unrecognizable to the person feeling them.
There are many phallic symbols in the movie, apart from the ‘nail’ in Withnail already mentioned. There is the hot dog wiener that Marwood, nude in the bathtub, offers to Withnail. Uncle Monty’s reference to the ‘mystery’ of the obviously phallic carrot (in ironic contrast to the far more mysterious yoni, our uncanny place of birth, symbolized in the film by flowers, “tarts. Prostitutes for the bees.”) should be recalled when we see Danny’s Camberwell Carrot, a huge phallic joint put in one’s mouth to give pleasure.
All those bottles of wine that Withnail puts to his mouth are more phallic symbols; and excessive drinking and pot-smoking can be seen as a fixation of the oral stage. Sometimes a carrot is just a carrot…and sometimes it’s much more than that.
Still more phallic symbols are the sword and shotgun that Withnail recklessly points at Marwood, an expression of an unconscious wish to have sex with his friend. Indeed, Withnail’s telling his uncle to feel free to enjoy Marwood sexually can be seen as a displaced wish to have Marwood himself.
(To return briefly to the Marxist interpretation, Withnail’s betrayal of his friend to his uncle–the two young men representing the proletariat, and Monty representing the bourgeoisie–can be seen to represent class collaboration, a lack of solidarity being the last straw that makes Marwood want to give up on his friendship with Withnail.)
Marwood’s fear of the homophobic Irishman in the pub is also peppered with unconscious homoerotic elements. While pissing, Marwood reads graffiti on the bathroom wall above the urinal (“I fuck arses.”), and imagines it’s the Irishman who has written it, an absurd idea that is better explained as an unconscious wish fulfillment. The Irishman recognizes Marwood’s homosexuality, and supposedly he’d rather fuck his ass than “murder the pair of [Withnail and Marwood].”
It’s quite curious how a number of characters in the film ‘mistake’ Withnail–and especially Marwood–for homosexuals. Not only does that Irishman, but also Jake the poacher (Elphick), who speaks of Marwood as “prancing like a tit,” and, of course, Uncle Monty. And just as Monty consciously makes unwanted advances on Marwood, so are there unconsciously homoerotic elements in the exchange with Jake, who has phallic eels in his pants, takes “a wheeze on [Withnail’s phallic] fag [!],” and says Marwood “want[s] working on.”
When Monty says that Marwood is “a thespian, too,” he pronounces the s and p like a zed and a b, making a word that rhymes with lesbian, another homosexual association. Marwood later makes a Freudian slip in saying he and Withnail are “buggered” if they can’t get their car out of the mud.
Marwood knows from his first meeting of Uncle Monty that “he’s a raving homosexual,” yet he is always grinning at this man who so lusts after him. He continues grinning even when it’s obvious that Monty wants to seduce him. It strains credibility to dismiss Marwood’s grinning as mere politeness: part of him wants to have a gay sexual experience (though assuredly not with roly-poly Monty), while another part wants to repress that urge.
That, in so brief a time, so many characters ‘mistake’ Withnail and Marwood for gays suggests that the former know something about the latter that the latter don’t know about themselves. Why does Marwood use perfume, of all things, to clean his boots after Withnail has puked on them? Why not use something like soap? Why is there perfume, rather than cologne, in their Camden Town flat? There aren’t any girlfriends to give it to, which is in itself a significant observation. The two young men may be poor, struggling actors, but they’re good-looking; if they’re straight, why don’t we see them even try to pick up any women?
When Uncle Monty attempts his “burglary” (interesting choice of words) on Marwood, the latter’s having “barely escaped a buggering” is achieved by having told Monty he’s in a gay relationship with Withnail. Even a non-homophobic man, one not normally given to violence, might find himself having, as a last resort, to hit a gay aggressor to stop him from succeeding in that “burglary.”
In the stress of the moment, one tends to blurt out unprepared, unrehearsed words, the first thing that comes to one’s mind, and therefore something tending to reveal unconscious wishes, like having a closeted gay relationship with one’s friend. It’s less his fear of homosexual rape than it is fear of ‘cheating’ on Withnail that’s bothering Marwood. His ‘lie’ to get Monty to stop his aggressive sexual advances is an unconscious truth, another Freudian slip. Both Withnail and Marwood have told Monty that each other is a closeted homosexual; again, I’m saying that both ‘lies’ are truths.
Still, Withnail’s betrayal makes Marwood want ‘to dump’ him, as it were. Now, Marwood’s wishing of a buggering on Withnail reflects both his conscious anger at his would-be friend’s betrayal, and his unconscious wish for sex with him, displaced onto someone like Monty, just as Withnail, in offering Marwood to his uncle, has displaced his own wish for sex with his friend, as mentioned above.
On their ride out from London to Monty’s cottage (at the beginning of which we appropriately see a wrecking ball being used to raze a building), we hear Jimi Hendrix‘s version of Bob Dylan‘s “All Along the Watchtower,” a song variously interpreted to be about such things as the Vietnam War and the Apocalypse. I tend toward the latter interpretation (though I’m sure many during the late 60s considered that war to be apocalyptic); this film presents the end of the hippie era, the near-end of the Keynesian, welfare-oriented capitalism of 1945-1973, and, most importantly, the end of the friendship of these two young men.
The song seems written for Withnail (the thief) and Marwood (the joker), or rather, the film seems made for the song. Marwood wants to find “some way out of here,” and Withnail tries to tell his friend there’s “No reason to get excited,” since all that matters to him is mooching off of his uncle and conniving at Monty’s attempted “burglary” of Marwood. To Withnail, the bourgeois “feel that life is but a joke,” he and Marwood have “been through that/And this is not [their] fate.”
“Businessmen, they drink my wine”; capitalists enjoy the luxuries of life and don’t “Know what any of it is worth.” This is prophetic of the dawn of Thatcher/Reagan neoliberalism, the effects of which were already being felt in England at the time of the filming of Withnail and I in 1987. “All along the watchtower/Princes kept the view/While all the women came and went/Barefoot servants, too.” The contrasts between these people reflect class differences felt even more sharply now, since neoliberal capitalism has grown like a cancer over the past forty years.
Just as we hear a Jimi Hendrix recording on the way out of London, so do we hear another of his recordings, “Voodoo Child (Slight Return),” on the way back. Instead of hearing a song about the end of the world as we know it, we hear one about how great and powerful the singer is (a feeling that often comes as a result of being drunk and/or high on drugs): “Well, I stand up next to a mountain/And I chop it down with the edge of my hand.”
Since we hear this song while drunk Withnail is driving recklessly back to London, we can interpret it as expressive of his narcissistic personality, something that has been trying Marwood’s patience for the whole length of the movie. Recall Withnail’s scream out on the hills of the countryside earlier: “Bastards! You’ll all suffer! I’ll show the lot of you! I’m gonna be a sta-a-a-a-ar!”
The threat of capitalism against one’s ability to survive is evident again when, on returning to their flat, Withnail and Marwood receive an eviction notice from their landlord, making Marwood spiral into another of his hysterical fears of annihilation. Ultimately, it won’t matter to him, as he’s been given the lead role in a play in Manchester. Since his acting career is taking off, he can enter the competitive world of capitalism. Since all Withnail does is get drunk, he won’t ever even enter that world, much less hope to be a star.
Not even going all the way to the train station with Marwood, Withnail knows he’s lost his friend forever. He recites Hamlet’s words to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern about the reason for his unhappiness, not only because he knows, as his uncle did years ago, that he’ll “never play the Dane,” but because he’s lost the man he’s unconsciously in love with.
Robinson originally intended to end the story with Withnail returning to the flat, picking up the shotgun he’d found in Monty’s cottage, pouring a bottle of wine into the barrel, then drinking it and blowing his brains out. Robinson chose to omit this scene because it’s too dark an ending for the film, but I take it as still having happened, even if unseen.
Why would Withnail want to kill himself just over a friend leaving him? Yes, he is self-destructive by nature, but only in the forms of drinking, doping, and reckless driving, not all the way to suicide. He still has Danny and Presuming Ed to hang out with. Yes, he envies Marwood’s greater success as an actor, but surely he knows that his own future as an actor, though dim, isn’t completely hopeless.
As I’ve said above, I believe he has unconscious homosexual feelings for Marwood, whose departure–not even wanting Withnail to follow him all the way to the station–is tantamount to a break-up. A clue is heard in Withnail’s quoting of Hamlet, which isn’t letter-perfect (in itself symbolic of his insufficient acting talent or determination) when he says, “Man delights not me. No, nor woman neither,” he says the part about women twice, whereas in Hamlet, it’s said only once. Women don’t delight Withnail because he’s gay.
This inability to gratify homosexual desire, the inability of any of these men–except Monty, of course–even to give expression to such desires, allied with the male hostility to them (the Irishman’s bigotry, Jake’s taunting of the “tit,” Withnail’s pointing of a phallic shotgun and sword at Marwood), all can be seen as symbolic of the alienation and lack of comradely solidarity between men (I’m using this word in the old-fashioned sense of people, the male sex here being symbolic of all people) as a consequence of capitalism, even in its postwar welfare-oriented form.
The party is over, that is, the 1945-1973 party of welfare capitalism was over, because it was never a suitable substitute for socialism anyway. Life in London as seen in the film can be seen to symbolize the First World, and life in the countryside, where the commons once was, can be seen to symbolize the Third World, a place full of peasant farmers (including Isaac Parkin), poverty, and want.
So Withnail’s and Marwood’s weekend indulgence in Uncle Monty’s cottage can be seen to represent a First World colonizing of the Third World, inhabiting its space and using its resources. Monty provides for his two “boys” the way the welfare state threw the poor a few bones to placate them and stave off socialist revolution, but the stark contrast between the First and Third Worlds has remained, a contrast we see clearly between London and Crow Crag.
We don’t resolve the world’s problems with brief moments of indulgence: getting drunk and stoned, enjoying “a delightful weekend in the country,” etc., then return to squalor and self-destruction. As Uncle Monty observed, “We live in a kingdom of reigns where royalty comes in gangs.” Even the best of them, the liberals and social democrats who pushed for the welfare state, didn’t make it last long, and then the neoliberals took over, the next gang.
There can be no true (welfare capitalist) beauty without (neoliberal) decay.