Withnail and I, Bruce Robinson’s autobiographical but magisterial film about the lives of two struggling actors in late sixties London, has completed the rare cinematic journey from cult movie to acknowledged masterpiece. On its release in 1987, it was far from a box-office triumph, but as word spread (particularly among students and others living penniless lives similar to those of its heroes) about its brilliant script, stunning cinematography and extraordinary ensemble acting, it gradually became revered to the point of obsession. In turn, that obsession translated over time into a realisation that it ranks not just among the finest cult movies but among the finest movies full-stop. Now, nearly thirty years after it first appeared, it is routinely regarded as being among the finest British movies ever made, (right up there with the likes of The Third Man and David Lean’s classics) and its memorable. In a recent piece for the Script Lab website on the greatest screenplays ever written, I argued that only Casablanca trumps it as the very best movie script. However, what is less well known, and certainly less celebrated, is the influence of Shakespeare on Withnail and I. Both in its biographical genesis and in many of its most memorable speeches and set-pieces, the impact of Shakespeare on Bruce Robinson’s mighty movie is profound.
Before becoming one of cinema’s most legendary screenwriters, Bruce Robinson himself was what is still referred to today as a “classically trained” actor, having studied at the Central School of Speech and Drama in London in the mid 1960s. It was from there that he enjoyed early, indeed almost instant, success as an actor, being cast as Benvolio by the great Italian film director, Franco Zeffirelli, in his self-consciously sixties-influenced screen adaptation of Romeo and Juliet in 1968. Zeffirelli sought to capture at least some of the youthful spirit of the age by deliberately casting beautiful and, crucially, young actors in the film, including Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey as the leads. Hitherto, productions of the play on stage had generally cast actors who were many years older than the titular characters were supposed to be, but Zeffirelli was determined to use young actors to portray the ultimate tale of young love doomed by old prejudices.
This simple but extraordinarily effective casting decision was one of the major reasons for the film’s enormous commercial success, as it became, at the time, the biggest box-office success of any adaptation of a Shakespeare play and Whiting and Hussey briefly became poster-boy and poster-girl for the sexual revolution sweeping the Western world. However, as befits one of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies, there was a dark, even unseemly side to the movie, one that was instrumental in Bruce Robinson’s development both as an actor and ultimately as a writer-director.
Robinson has always claimed, in numerous interviews, that during the filming of Romeo and Julie Zeffirelli was attracted to him and at times actively expressed his romantic or sexual interest in him. Like so many of the other young actors in the film, the young Robinson was a genuinely beautiful young man, almost a modern-day equivalent of the exquisite and delicate young men and women immortalised in so many Renaissance paintings. However, Robinson was avowedly heterosexual and Zeffirelli was not only much older (he was 45 when he filmed Romeo and Juliet) but, as the director of the film, in a position of power far greater than that of an actor making his first movie. For Robinson, it was as if the play’s overarching theme – of tender, impressionable youth being threatened and ultimately overwhelmed by the forces of age and entrenched financial power – was being brought menacingly to life.
After the success of Romeo and Juliet, Robinson continued to act for several years, including in such notable films as Ken Russell’s The Music Lovers (1970) and Francois Truffaut’s The Story of Adele H. (1975). However, as his own youthful bloom and good looks faded, he found it increasingly difficult to find work as an actor and eventually slid into the sybaritic, even alcoholic lifestyle that he would capture forever in Withnail. It was only when he hit the proverbial “rock bottom” that he turned to writing, soon replicating his initial rapid rise as an actor by being Oscar-nominated in 1984 for his superb screenplay for The Killing Fields, adapting Sidney Schanberg’s book, The Death and Life of Dith Pran, about his experiences in Cambodia during the pathological dictatorship of Pol Pot. On the back of that success, Robinson was able to gain funding from the rising British company, Handmade Films (whose financiers included ex-Beatle George Harrison) to bring to the big screen his own unique vision of the end of the sixties, Withnail and I, which included his depiction of a young, impoverished man being pursued by an older sexual predator, who was both sensitive and ruthless.
The ghost of Zeffirelli and his film version of Romeo and Juliet haunts Withnail and I. It is there at the outset when the furiously jealous Withnail reads about a young actor who has secured a “plum role for top Italian director.” As Withnail rages, “Course he does. Probably on a tenner a day. And I know what for. Two pound ten a tit and a fiver for his arse…” Of course, the “boy” in question is Bruce Robinson himself, in a direct autobiographical reference to his own experience on the set of Romeo and Juliet. But that is just the beginning, as the whole plot of Withnail and I is based on this conflation of youthful sexual appeal and commercial exchange. Withnail persuades his wealthy Uncle Monty to lend him his cottage in the country in return for a vague suggestion that the “I” character (called “Marwood” in the screenplay, though he is never referred to by name in the film) will repay him with sexual favours, a plan, of course, that “I” is blissfully unaware of.
Richard Griffiths’ Uncle Monty may be twice the size and girth of the slimmer and taller Zeffirelli but he was nevertheless modelled on him. Like Zeffirelli, he is much older and wealthier than his younger protégés, and he is also remarkably cultured, blithely quoting Latin and lamenting the decline of contemporary life. However, as he ultimately shows, he is equally capable of using his power (both physical and financial) to get what he wants. When he finally forces his way into “I”’s bedroom late at night, made up like a drag queen, he first tries to woo “I”, but when that fails he declares: “I mean to have you…even if it must be burglary.”
Now, it must be stressed that Robinson has never alleged that Zeffirelli ever pursued him in such a direct manner. Nevertheless, the idea of an older man pursuing a younger man for his own ends (and against the young man’s own wishes) was inspired by Robinson’s experience on Romeo and Juliet, and it is also telling that Withnail and I is set not in the 1970s, when Robinson’s own acting career hit the skids, but in the late 1960s, when he was actually a youthful success. The period setting is vital, because at that time, of course, homosexuality had only just been legalised in Britain and it effectively remained illegal in Italy until much later. It is in that historical context that both the real-life exploits of Zeffirelli and the fictional predation of Uncle Monty must be seen. Both were older men who obviously struggled with their own sexuality (Zeffirelli himself only came out as openly gay very late in life) and if at times they resorted to an over-zealous pursuit of younger men, then it must be remembered that during their own youth any latent homosexual instincts would have had to be suppressed for fear of imprisonment. As “I” finally says of Uncle Monty, having read the note he leaves in the cottage after fleeing during the night, “Poor old bastard.” Withnail scoffs, but that lament could have applied to an entire generation of middle-aged and older homosexual men who could not easily, or even legally, join in the sexual revolution of the sixties.
Of course, there is another Shakespearean ghost that haunts Withnail and I, and that is Hamlet – not the literal ghost of Old Hamlet, but the role of young Hamlet and the near-impossible standard of actorly perfection that it represents. Like Bruce Robinson and the roll-call of fellow young actors who are amalgamated in the character of Withnail (notably the little-known Vivian MacKerrell but also such luminaries as Michael Kitchen), Withnail and I are both actors and so, of course, is Uncle Monty. Or rather, he is a former actor, or more specifically a failed actor. He himself can precisely identify the moment when he realised he would never succeed as a thespian, which he recounts in one of the most quoted speeches: “It is the most shattering experience of a young man’s life when one morning he awakes, and quite reasonably says to himself, I will never play the Dane. When that moment comes, one’s ambition ceases…”
Of course, that speech really gains relevance and resonance at the end of the film, when Withnail himself quotes Hamlet; in fact, he recounts one of Hamlet’s most famous soliloquies not to the audience of people he has always dreamed of but to an audience of wolves at London zoo. Marwood, or “I”, has finally left him, to play the lead in Journey’s End (a real acting job after all their unpaid proclamations to the heavens and the viewer), refusing even a last drink to say farewell. As the London rain hammers down and “I” walks away, Withnail is alone on screen for the very first time. (Most of the film is shot from “I”’s point of view and it is only now, at the very end, that Withnail is seen without his former partner in crime.) Naturally, inevitably, being both an actor and a philosopher (even if it of the drunken variety), Withnail’s thoughts turn to Hamlet and he slowly but brilliantly gives the performance of his life, proving that, despite all the appearances to the contrary throughout the film, he is indeed a genuinely talented actor: “I have of late, but wherefore I know not, lost all my mirth.”
And so he goes on, in what for me is the finest ever soliloquy delivered by a screen Hamlet. It may not be part of a complete performance of Hamlet, but this tiny fragment, seen in isolation, is more emotionally truthful and more truly cinematic than any of the soliloquies delivered by even the greatest screen Hamlets, such as Olivier or Innokenty Smoktunovsky, who played the Dane in Grigori Kosintsev’s so-called “Soviet Hamlet” of 1964. Most of their soliloquies, including the “To Be Or Not To Be” soliloquy, are delivered off-screen, as it were, in voice-over, but Withnail’s Hamlet soliloquy is thrillingly on-screen, compelling the viewer to watch and be the actual human audience that Withnail craves but never finds. It reminds me of the “Hamlet” memorably described by Michael Blakemore at the end of his novel about a struggling actor, Next Season. Like Withnail, Blakemore’s Hamlet is not a true, theatrical Hamlet at all, but a homeless man raging at the heavens. However, when the hero of the novel witnesses his senseless rage he realises that that is the key to performing Hamlet. Hamlet must express not so much control and grandiloquence, but wildness and despair.
In the original draft of his screenplay for Withnail and I, Robinson had Withnail returning to his ghastly flat after entertaining the wolves and calmly blowing his head off with a shotgun. However, on filming and witnessing Richard E. Grant’s sublime soliloquy to nobody, he realised that that was the perfect, ambivalent ending to the film. Withnail may not actually kill himself, but it is quite clear that this is the end of the road for him, at least as an actor. As Uncle Monty had said of himself, he realises that he will “never play the Dane” (at least to a human audience) and all his ambition “ceases.”
Finally, there is a third Shakespearean ghost, or spirit, haunting Withnail and I. Unlike the direct biographical influence of his experience of filming Romeo and Juliet, or the explicit references in the script to Hamlet, it is not obvious, but I am convinced that it is there all the same. It is the influence of what is arguably the most perfectly realised relationship (that is, a relationship between two characters, as opposed to the realisation of an individual character) in all of Shakespeare, which is that between Falstaff and Prince Hal. Robinson is a classically trained actor and devotee of Shakespeare (in his quasi-memoir, Smoking in Bed, he movingly talks about his reverence for the Bard, saying, like so many Shakespeareans, that his existence is the surest proof of God’s existence) and so must have been familiar from an early age with the Henry IV plays, and in particular the central relationship between the old reprobate Falstaff and the young prince Hal. Those plays, and that relationship, have always been absolutely pivotal to Shakespeare’s rise to fame, and enduring fame at that. Such was their success in his own time that Shakespeare was not only forced to change Falstaff’s name from the original “Oldcastle” (to avoid the wrath, and potential litigation, of the original Oldcastle’s heirs) but Queen Elizabeth herself allegedly prompted Shakespeare to write a play about “Falstaff in love,” leading to the creation of The Merry Wives of Windsor. Critically, that fame and success of the Henry IV plays has been sustained throughout the ages. Only recently, The Guardian described them as “the greatest of Shakespeare’s plays” and at the end of his seminal TV series, In Search of Shakespeare, Michael Wood quotes an Indian author who says that he would gladly exchange “all of literature” for the scene in which Hal finally rejects Falstaff.
That rejection scene is replicated, at least in spirit, in the ending of Withnail and I, when “I” finally bids farewell to Withnail before going off to become a real (read “paid”) actor. That same sense of desolation only partially leavened by the memory of former affection is present in both scenes. Withnail and I may be roughly the same age, unlike the youthful Hal and the elderly Falstaff, but otherwise their relationship is essentially the same. In the Henry IV plays, Falstaff has “tutored” the unworldly Hal in the real ways of the world, including wine, women and song. Similarly, in Withnail and I, and indeed in Bruce Robinson’s own life, Withnail/Vivian MacKerrell has “tutored” his much gaucher friend in the ways of genuine righteousness, introducing him to the pleasures (and perils) of wine, barbiturates and marijuana. Superficially, Uncle Monty may appear to be like Falstaff in appearance, but in essence Withnail is all Falstaff, and just like Prince Hal “I” must reject him if he is to make his own way in the world, even if that rejection will ultimately cost him the best and truest (if most cowardly) friend he will ever have.
Withnail and I is undoubtedly one of the greatest films ever made and in particular one of the finest screenplays ever written, and one of the many reasons for that is the at-times subtle, at-other-times explicit influence of Shakespeare. In fact, in its original autobiographical inspiration (on the set of Zeffirelli’s film of Romeo and Juliet), in its allusions to and quotations of Hamlet, and even in the close affinity that Withnail and “I” share with Falstaff and Prince Hal, Withnail and I is arguably one of the greatest Shakespearean films.