[The following review contains SPOILERS; YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!]
In Withnail and I, the characters are defined by their environment; the setting both influences their moods and reflects their fractured psyches. The squalid London flat in which the protagonists—a couple of struggling actors—exist in a sort of hazy, pill-addled catatonia, for example, is a nightmarish vision of poverty and urban decay. The furniture, clearly salvaged from various junkyards and rubbish heaps, is strewn haphazardly about the cramped living area. No two chairs match, and every available surface is littered with empty bottles and crushed cigarette butts. The toilet is in such a state of disrepair that it might as well be a plastic bucket. And a mysterious creature has taken up residence among the towers of filthy dishes stacked in the sink—best case scenario, it’s a rat; otherwise, there’s a distinct possibility that the accumulated scum and grime have attained sentience. Initially, the quaint rural cottage to which our heroes escape for an impromptu holiday is likewise uninhabitable; cold, starving, trapped by violent thunderstorms, and surrounded by seemingly hostile locals, they spend long, tense nights huddled around the stove in the dark, damp kitchen, warming themselves by burning whatever meager kindling (mostly twigs and splinters) they can scavenge. Miraculously, however, the arrival of the domicile’s more self-sufficient owner—the archetypal “eccentric uncle”—totally transforms this bleak atmosphere; illuminated by the gentle glow of candles, filled with the enticing aroma of meticulously prepared meals, and generously supplied with firewood, the space suddenly becomes downright cozy, rejuvenating the spirits of its occupants.
Of course, production design can only carry a movie so far. Fortunately, star Richard E. Grant elevates the material, navigating the story’s humor and drama with equal finesse; in his capable hands, the titular Withnail is a beautifully complex contradiction. On the surface, he is witty, charismatic, flamboyant… but he is also a compulsive liar, a drug addict, and an alcoholic (guzzling everything from sherry to lighter fluid). The failure of his career has taken an obvious toll on his confidence and mental health, and his resulting self-destructive behavior merely exacerbates his misery. Ultimately, his one true friend (the eponymous “I”) is forced to acknowledge the toxicity of their relationship, reluctantly abandoning him. Withnail, alone and forsaken, ends the film with a forlorn recitation of a Shakespearean soliloquy (my personal favorite, in fact: Hamlet’s “What a piece of work is a man” speech), performing for an audience of apathetic zoo animals—a poignant conclusion to a tragicomic masterpiece.