Ever since its release 30 years ago this week, the film Withnail and I has divided opinion. Some find it a meandering, inconsequential and tedious affair. It has no real plot to speak of, beyond that of two drifting, frustrated, drink-sodden actors fleeing their decrepit London flat to escape to the countryside and ‘rejuvenate’. Others adore the movie for the same reason, on account of its very aimlessness and debauchery. The film’s intangibility and mood of unease epitomises the existential crisis confronting Withnail and his companion, Marwood. But one thing is for certain: if you are or have been a student, you will love it.
The film’s appeal to undergraduates is perfectly logical, especially to those in their carefree first year, and certainly to those of us who went to university for free. The world represented in Withnail and I mirrors student life, albeit an exaggerated version of it. There’s the drugs, the anarchy, the alcoholic excess, the killing time in the morning waiting for the pubs to open, staying up all night, the hangovers, the mountain of unwashed crockery in the sink, the squalor and the poverty.
Life for students can be harrowing, it being the first time most teenagers have left home for a sustained period, and the nagging feeling of insecurity and disorder that pervades the film also appeals to undergraduates in unfamiliar surroundings. Students newly ensconced in redbrick universities in the north of England, who often face hostility from locals (mostly deserved), can relate to Withnail when he pleads pathetically to the Cumbrian farmer: ‘We’re not from London!’
Ah, yes – the quotes, the favourite pasttime of every devotee, and the bane of anyone who hates the film. A housemate of mine in Manchester had a friend who was so obsessed with the film that his girlfriend issued him an ultimatum – that she would leave him should he quote Withnail and I one more time. To which he replied: ‘You terrible cunt!’ And it remains an eminently quotable movie. Anyone who’s seen it surely has at least once said ‘I demand to have some booze!’, and, the morning after, ‘I feel like a pig shat in my head!’. Quoting the film to one’s peers also acts as kind of social cement. Many others have also tried recreating for themselves a ‘Camberwell Carrot’.
Yet beyond the drunken frolics of this pair of perfumed ponces, demanding cakes and fine wines, who are chased by a randy bull and told to get in the back of the van – and beyond Uncle Monty’s raving homosexuality – there is a tragedy at the heart of this ostensible comedy. It only makes itself clear at the very end, with Withnail reciting Hamlet’s soliloquy in the park: alone, in the rain, bottle in hand.