While tying my shoelaces this morning (a feat that demands quite a lot of concentration from me, 4 times a day), I for no good reason whatsoever thought of the movie Withnail and I (Bruce Robinson, 1987). Although, I was feeling a bit defeated, and I suspect it involuntarily made me think of the last scene in this film. This is one of my all time favourites, so touching, that I have come to associate melancholia itself with a picture of a dejected Richard E. Grant in the rain, a bottle of wine in one hand, and an umbrella in the other. If not one of the best pieces of acting I’ve seen, definitely one of the most convincing.
This film is one of those where the sum is greater than the parts. No-one involved ever got close to emulating their work in this film. It all came together, like some parties somehow just “work”. And you remember them for the rest of your life, without ever knowing the exact source of your nostalgia.
Richard E. Grant (aka Richard G. Esterhuyse) delivers what is without a doubt the best performance of his career, while Richard Griffiths as gay “uncle Monty” is at once believable and ridiculously eccentric . “Danny” will go down in history as the dope head to end all dope heads, and the joint he smokes as the joint to end all joints (it literally looks like something you could beat your wife with). I’m convinced many millions of brain cells have perished as a direct consequence of Ralph Brown's uncanny performance. The chemistry between the Withnail and I characters, I have no doubt, is one of most compelling I’ve ever experienced in a movie. They are the ultimate odd couple that somehow just belong together, complete each other: McGann, the neurotic “I”, and Grant, the impulsive hedonist that just does as he pleases, a drunk who’s allergic to alcohol. Their incomprehensible (but 100% devoid of any pretence) relationship is an entity in its own right, almost an extra character in this movie.
I think what sets this comedy apart from most truly funny comedies is how it succeeds in creating some of the most eccentric comic characters without ever sacrificing the viewer’s inclination to feel genuine empathy for them. You ultimately realize this in the last scene.
Anyone who hasn’t experienced this gem is doing himself a great disservice. It is easy to see why it has managed attract such a substantial cult following. One of the ultimate word-of-mouth films, in the same league as the Big Lebowski, Donnie Darko, This is Spinal Tap or any cult classic for that matter. Any self-respecting dope head should see this movie at least 10 times.
But to get back to the final scene:
The “I” character had just heard that he had won the lead role in a play (they are both struggling actors), against all expectations (especially Withnail’s). Withnail walks his friend to the train station to see him off. It’s clear at this stage that Withnail knows that their paths will part and that it’s the end of an era: nothing will ever be the same again. A successful career awaits “I”, one that Withnail has long ago resigned himself to never having. But more sad is that he is losing his dear friend. Up until this point he seemed like he only cared about himself and drugs and alcohol, and that he’s the type of person who just takes life as it comes. You unexpectedly and suddenly feel extremely sorry for Withnail, because you find out for the first time that he loves his friend more than anything, and he is lost without him.
He is ultimately a tragic figure. Then, in my all time favourite monologue, the pathos is only compounded by the ironic brilliance of Withnail’s haunting rendition of a quote from Hamlet, alone at a park after dropping off “I”, and hence a rendition no-one ever gets to see:
"I have of late, but wherefore I know not, lost all my mirth and indeed it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame the earth seems to me a sterile promontory; this most excellent canopy the air, look you, this mighty o'erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire; why, it appeareth nothing to me but a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours. What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, how like an angel in apprehension, how like a God! The beauty of the world, paragon of animals; and yet to me, what is this quintessence of dust. Man delights not me, no, nor women neither, nor women neither."