Withnail and I was a buddy comedy unlike any other

An old cult film showing in Cowley proves to be more sadly relevant than expected

“We’ve gone on holiday by mistake” is just one of the many highly quotable lines in Withnail and I. It also summarises the nature of my trip to Cowley’s Picture Palace – more a happy accident, however, than a mistake. In sun-soaked Cowley, on a Sunday afternoon, I was willingly roped into seeing this cult classic that I had never heard of before. What I found was a buddy comedy unlike any other.

As a resident of North Oxford, Cowley seems like a distant land, filled with lively bars and eateries, compared to the suffocating suburbia of Summertown. The Picture Palace itself is a novelty giving an exciting glimpse into cinemas of old. Tickets are paid for in a booth outside. Once through the front door you are immediately in the picture room, no reception, no corridor. A tiny concession stand offers roughly a pint of ale at £4. The Sunday crowd was surprisingly old and unpretentious. One criticism would be the acoustics, with lines of dialogue occasionally being lost. Ironically this added to our post-show discussion as we attempted to stitch our knowledge of the plot together.

Withnail and I itself is slow to start, beginning with a series of awkwardly connected vignettes. The film follows the misfortunes of the eccentric Withnail and his anonymous friend credited as ‘I’. However, as the second act begins, the film finds its footing with the pace both comedic and dramatic. Much of Withnail’s humour is drawn out through its embellished characters as opposed to conventional jokes or set-up and payoff action. Its characters are so striking that one can see its influence in all sorts of British comedy. Spaced, Bottom, The Mighty Boosh and Peep Show all have similarly deprived dysfunctional duos.

One way in which Withnail and I has aged poorly, however, is in its treatment of gay people. While Richard Griffith’s role as Monty, an eccentric homosexual, who aggressively comes onto ‘I’, could be viewed as simply a one of a kind humourous character, one can’t help feel that Withnail is playing off of a negative gay stereotype.

The stereotype of forceful gay men has been used to shame gay people and was sinisterly employed by Kevin Spacey to excuse his behaviour towards a young actor. There is some degree of sympathetic portrayal for Monty, especially in his subtly solemn farewell note. However, the depiction of Monty’s treatment of ‘I’, a young actor himself, should be criticised for its danger in cementing a damaging stereotype, which is a little too close to home.

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The film is beautifully shot, deftly using camera work to both enhance certain jokes and produce visual gags of its own. Striking landscapes of Cumbria and London are employed not with any particular shoehorning but as a general backdrop for the action on screen, giving it an additional degree of wonder.

“We are 91 days from the end of this decade and there’s gonna be a lot of refugees” is another one of Withnail’s great aphorisms. This film is in part about the end of an era – set in 1969 it depicts the slow and painful death of the hippie. While some move on to greater things, for instance ‘I’ landing a big acting role and cutting his hair, others stay stuck in the past, slipping into oblivion. As Withnail departs in the final scene, a park fence turns into a row of prison bars. Withnail and hippies like him are reduced from free spirits to imprisoned addicts.

Written by Bruce Robinson, Withnail and I is an autographical film to some degree. Robinson’s experience of the ’60s is clearly portrayed by the aforementioned depiction of its death. However, the true heart of this film comes from its depiction of these two friends.

What makes Withnail and I stand out from other buddy comedies is how it depicts the disintegration of a friendship. There is no reconciliation or sentimentality at the end of the film, instead we are left with an unspoken but lasting disagreement. It is an experience all too relevant and common for the Oxford student, whose social life moves at a lightning pace – we meet a new friend, take delight in who they are, and then slowly realise they are not all they are cracked up to be.

That moment of realisation is followed by a cold, unspoken uncoupling. Here, Withnail clearly hasn’t fully accepted or realised that ‘I’ is leaving not just their apartment but leaving Withnail himself. Although Withnail undeniably treated ‘I’ with contempt, attempting to pawn him off to his uncle for a cottage, no one leaves this film totally in the right. ‘I’ heads to the station in the final scenes, speaking to Withnail as if he were a mere acquaintance and refusing to allow him to accompany him further. Withnail and I perfectly depicts the moral ambiguity of a failed friendship, balancing the wrongs of the bad friend and the one who jumped ship.