In 1969, two substance-abusing, unemployed actors retreat to the countryside for a holiday that proves disastrous.In 1969, two substance-abusing, unemployed actors retreat to the countryside for a holiday that proves disastrous.In 1969, two substance-abusing, unemployed actors retreat to the countryside for a holiday that proves disastrous.
So says "Danny," the Delphic Oracle of the film, and this is the nut. For anyone who has ever looked back at the demise of the counter-cultural movements of the 1960's and felt sadness at their disintegration and subsumption by the forces of corporate marketing mass mind-control, this movie is for you. Yes, it's a comedy, and like all great comedies, it's drama works best because the humor of the story throws the drama into such sharp relief.
If you've ever chased after your dreams with drugs, and found yourself tattered and broken at the end of a long road of pain and loss, this movie will reach you. If you've never used your food money for the week to buy booze or drugs for the day, if you've never been afraid of the multilayered quagmire of standing water, dishes and unidentifiable matter in your sink, then you will miss a lot of what this movie has to offer. If you've ever had a dream, and had to watch it die knowing that it was your own bungling that killed it, then this movie will reach your heart. And if you've ever gotten so stoned with your friends that you all searched your apartment for twenty minutes for the keys that were in your hand the whole time, you will find a lot to laugh at in this movie.
Once again, Richard E. Grant scores a bullseye. His Withnail is every drowning loser left at the end of a voyage undertaken with high hopes, caught in a storm watching the waters close over his head, "making an enemy of (his) own future," "drifting into the arena of the unwell."
If you've ever looked at life, with its wages and cubicles and sports, its schedules and its rules, no place to hang your hat and be let alone but that you must pay someone rent, and felt like something was wrong, something must be missing, you will understand Withnail's terrible, desperate compulsion to stand on the throttle and blast through one disaster after another.
I never "got" Shakespear until I watched this movie. If you don't get anything else from Withnail & I, at least try to embrace the Hamlet soliloquy at the movie's end. Maybe you've never been troubled by a feeling that life is empty and tedious. And maybe you've seen those people who do seem to see life that way, and not understood why. The answer for you is in that speech at the movie's end.
Danny says, "When you're hanging on to a rising balloon, you're presented with two choices; either let go or hang on which brings up the question of how long you can keep your grip on the rope?" How terrible it must be to have been involved in the hippie subculture in the sixties, and to have to watch it die in the seventies.
In his able and compelling epitaph of the 1960's, Hunter S. Thompson put it best when he said, "San Francisco in the middle sixties was a very special time and place to be a part of. But no explanation, no mix of words or music or memories can touch that sense of knowing that you were there, and alive, in that corner of time in the world. Whatever it meant.
There was madness in any direction, at any hour. You could strike sparks anywhere.
There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right--that we were winning. And that, I think, was the handle. That sense of inevitable victory over the forces of old and evil. Not in any mean or military sense--we didn't need that. Our energy would simply prevail. We had all the momentum. We were riding the crest of a high, and beautiful wave.
So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look west. And with the right kind of eyes, you can almost see the highwater mark--that place where the wave finally broke, and rolled back."
Semper Fidelis, Montague Withnail.
- Apr 25, 1999