“Withnail and I”, twenty years old this year, has finally been canonized as a Great British Film. It still has its detractors of course, but then, its detractors are fools.
The argument against “Withnail’s” greatness is that it hasn’t added anything to the grammar of film as such, there’s no formal radicalism nor is there any of the Po-Mo knowingness and elliptical plot structuring of late eighties/early nineties Indy (Jim Jarmush, Tarantino, Atom Egoyan etc and ad infinitum through every “smart” piece of cinema since). “Withnail and I” has a pretty static camera, a pretty schematic sense of montage, and a definite beginning, middle and end, precisely in that order.
But to assume there is nothing radical going on in “Withnail and I” is to radically underestimate it. Few filmmakers (Chabrol, Michael Haneke spring to mind) have attempted the subtle and pervasive diagetic sleight of hand that Bruce Robinson achieves with “Withnail.” Even the title of the piece reveals the strategy, foregrounding Withnail, the character whose excesses everyone remembers from the film, then sneakily subverting it with that “I”. “Withnail and Marwood” would seem to put the characters on an equal footing, “Withnail and I” is an altogether more elusive proposition. Both self-effacing and grandiose, seeming to elevate Withnail yet also encapsulate him, the argument as to who protoganizes the piece folds back on itself indefinitely. And its this act of both assertion and denial, this equivocation (with the “I” opening up a metafictional tension between Bruce Robinson, the presumed “I”, the self-asserting Author, and the fictional Marwood) that anticipates the unresolved core of Marwood’s being.
The film is certainly Marwood’s, indeed the film takes place within Marwood’s universe and from the start it’s evident that what we're shown, the world the characters inhabit, is entirely constructed by Marwood. It doesn’t take long for generalized disgust and fear, especially sexual disgust and fear of threatening male sexuality to turn up. Indeed sexuality per se is threatening and disgusting to Marwood. There’s a vicious image of an old hag, one of the only two women, (both hags) we see in the film, biting into a fried egg sandwich and squirting yolk all over the plate ( one of the few p.o.v shots in the film), as Marwood reads a headline about a transsexual’s recent operation, “I had to become a woman”. Bruce Robinson’s script has Marwood sitting in the café surrounded by “ketchup bottles, with their blackened foreskins”, collapsing all kinds of levels of threat and visceral horror into one. Castration, uncertain gender boundaries, old crones chewing hungrily on dripping eggs, sclerotic, menstrual pricks everywhere. This is indeed the “arena of the unwell”. Kitchen-sink Cronenburg. Suddenly Marwood's in panic and it doesn’t take long for the word “rape” to pop up in his mind. It’s a fear that never leaves him.
It’s long been pointed out of course that Withnail and I has a “subtext” but this is again to fail to fully understand that we are in a position where everything given to us is filtered through, constructed by Marwood. Long before Monty means to have him, sex and physicality cause terrible disruptions in Marwood’s psyche. The world is saturated in sexual dread. The boy who lands a plum role for an Italian director is on “two pound ten a tit and a fiver for his arse,” “ Imagine the size of his balls” Withnail muses over steroid abusing shot putter Jeff Woade. “Imagine getting in a fight with the fucker.” “ Please! I don’t feel good,” Marwood replies. We’re still within the first five minutes of the film. Soon they’re being menaced in the Pub by a huge Irish punter who might “ fuck arses”, then they’re off to see “ raving homosexual” Uncle Monty, head off to Penrith where they are menaced by the poacher Jake who threatens to break into the “horrible little shack” they inhabit in the middle of the night and put a suitably phallic Black Pod on them. Then there’s the randy bull that has hobbled the surly farmer by giving him one in the knee and which threatens to gore Marwood in its desire to get to the cows at the bottom of the field they’re crossing. Finally, of course Monty turns up at the cottage to seduce and, if necessary, burgle him.
This is not a subtext within the film, it is the film. A study in Marwood's neurosis. It’s symbolism is so subtly integrated into the piece, that with Withnail, so central to what’s delightful and engaging about the film, so dazzling, the “I”ness is intentionally, almost fully, eclipsed. A brilliant diagetic misdirection strategy. “Withnail and I” is performatively neurotic in the way that say “Lost Highway” is performatively shizophrenic. Its not “about” neurosis, it is neurotic. The irresolvable question of Withnail and Marwoods relationship, are they in love or are/have they been lovers? is irresolvable precisely because we only know Marwood’s version of events and his point of view is structured around his denial. It may not be that Marwood can’t accept his own gayness so much as that in his chronic narcissism he compulsively utilises his own attractiveness to win regard, then denies his own intentions. He’s a flirt, and like all flirtation the end is not sex, physicality, but ego support. Why does Marwood scrub his boots with essence of petunia before he goes to the threatening pub? Why can’t he help but smile at Uncle Monty? Why does he emerge from the bathroom clad only in a towel to be appraised by Danny. “You’re looking very beautiful man,” (before offering him his saveloy!).
Both self-effacing and grandiose, Marwood oscillates between provocation and retreat, unable to follow thorough on his desire , unaware even of what his desire might be. Three significant sequences/shots in the film frame Marwood’s particular combination of desire and timidity, echoing the title (see image above). They are all confrontations, the first with the Irish homophobe, the second with Danny, the third with the Poacher. In all three Marwood stands behind Withnail, shielding himself, offering advice, pushing Withnail on. Withnail is Marwoods proxy in these sequences either acting out Marwood’s wishes or interceding in the consequences of Marwood’s provocations. It is perhaps only due to the two sequences in which Marwood is most catastrophically under threat without Withnail to intercede, in the scene where he must face down the bull in preparation for his later facing down Monty, (though this entire sequence twists around the paradox that in Marwood’s denying his “real” heterosexual relationship with Withnail he can convince Monty that he’s not in denial and is having a “real” relationship with him) that he can finally break his dependence on Withnail enough to accept the job in Manchester and leave him. The question of course of the extent to which Withnail uses Uncle Monty as proxy for his own unexpressed/inexpressible desire (having primed Monty with some elaborate fabrication about Marwood’s status as a “Toilet trader”) is significant. Why, that vital night of all nights, after everything Marwood has said, does Withnail get so abysmally drunk and leave Marwood to Monty’s tender ministrations?
2)Withnail: “ I deny all accusations…”
The film is so completely Marwood's that it’s only in the coda that we finally see Withnail alone, granted an existence (partially) independent of Marwood’s presence and can be sure that he concretely exists, though quite what he is, unmediated by Marwood, is largely unknowable, he simply channels Hamlet (finally “playing the Dane”) to a pack of glassy eyed wolves in an enclosure. The final line is, again, simultaneously an assertion and a disavowel. “Man delights not me, no, nor woman neither… no nor woman neither,” the rueful repetition stressing that it’s especially woman that doesn’t delight him. This is an entirely negative conception of pleasure in which, really, one can only opt for the least agonizing of situations. I love you because with you I feel so much less uncomfortable than I do with everybody else.
Withnail, like Marwood, has been in limbo, but will remain there. While we might be able to imagine Marwood, however tentatively, being physical we can’t imagine for a moment that Withnail would wander around clad just in a towel. Withnail is thoroughly buttoned down and asexual, his poverty is both material, he has a sole flapping off his shoe, he’s signing on, and more broadly, in Steven’s sense, he’s deeply physically impoverished. Estranged from his own desires, his own body, he owns almost nothing. What’s left to Withnail in the way of pleasures, what has been magnified for him in his diminished sensual and affective universe, is language. Words are all he has. Withnail is the man whose body is alien to him and who revels bitterly in grandiloquent language as an escape from his poverty. This is what has made him iconic for many. This is what many have identified with in him.
But language is, of course, both his salvation and his curse, both the wound and the means by which the wound is momentarily sutured closed. Withnail strives to break language, to turn his own prodigious capacity for language back on itself, to defeat it, to evacuate it, to transcend it. His fits of high dudgeon, the closest he gets to transport, crest at the edge of ecstatic speech but he is too deeply repressed even for this, for the joy of babbling, for the relief of mouthing nonsense. While language might bend in his grasp he can never break (through) it. Nor will Withnail be offered the salve of baby-talk and cooing, the renaming of things, the beautiful exclusivity of the private language of lovers. All that’s left to him is irony and the thrill of the impossible demand, wounding reality. He demands, notoriously, to have some booze, he not only wants the finest wines known to humanity, he wants them here and he wants them now, he refuses to be an understudy, and defiantly roars at the empty sky that he will be a star. The tragic note that creeps in at the film's end is not just the parting of old friends and the grandeur of Withnail’s monologue. He has not just lost “all his mirth” but without Marwood there to perform to/for it seems that even his words, finally, have been lost to him and his poverty is complete. Without Marwood he simply doesn’t exist, though he is granted a last few, ghostly minutes of half-life, still, presumably, caught within the periphery of Marwood’s presence as he heads off alone for the station.
Then it ends.
UPDATE: Owen comes at it from a different angle and hits a high number of Withnails on the head! .....a Withnail symposium, anyone.....