It has been 30 years and a few days since Bruce Robinson gifted our celluloid world with Withnail & I: a dark and twisted comedy about two down-on-their-luck actors who, in an attempt to escape the hideousness of late ‘60s London, decide to holiday in the sparse English countryside for a bit rejuvenation.
Not much of a plot, I’ll admit, but then the film’s characters more than make up for this structural deficit. Especially the eponymous Withnail – played by Richard E Grant – whose maniacal, self-serving antics will haunt the seamier parts of your self-conscious for all eternity.
From the way he looks, drawn and gaunt under a cloak of tattered tweed, to the way he lives, one hand clenched around a misappropriated bottle of ’53 Margaux, the other bringing to his lips some rare herbs or prescribed chemicals, Withnail is perhaps one of the most fiendishly captivating protagonists you are ever likely to see on a screen.
He also harbors a seedy elegance: an enduring form of inverted snobbery earned from a decade’s worth of murder and all-bran and rape. He wears it for all to see. And not just on his sleeve – his car too is a (sometimes) moving monument to the tumultuous, self-inflicted maelstrom that has become his life.
In its prime Withnail’s powder blue Jaguar Mark II was a stately animal. For when first unveiled to the public at the 1959 Earl’s Court Motor Show, the Mark II was indeed a luxury saloon that strictly adhered to the company’s long-standing corporate maxim of ‘grace, pace and space.’ As such it came lavished with plenty of high street features including a walnut dashboard, leather seats, rear passenger heating and the option of a potent 3.8-litre straight-six engine. Back then it was the cream of the British executive crop.
Under Withnail’s vigil it has long gone to seed. The cowhide has cracked to the consistency of crisped desert mud. The sharp edges of Camden Town have left their mark on doors and fenders. Circles of rust and streaks of mud act as some kind of abstract roadmap to years of deferred maintenance.
And yet like some dumb Cyclops it still manages to thunder down the M1 with one dim headlamp piercing through the gloom. Uncle Monty’s Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith De Ville may have broken down en route but the Mark II never skips a beat. Even in the middle of a ****ing gale, in the middle ****ing nowhere, and without any aspirins, the Jaguar delivers the duo to Crow Crag with a faded dignity.
What of its fate then? Well after an alcohol-induced dash back to London that ultimately culminates in police detainment, the audience remains unsure of the Jaguar’s destiny. Was it impounded? Will it be sold to oppose the eviction notice? Although we’re left with more questions than answers by the time the 107th minute rolls around, one can’t shake a deep sense of foreboding.
For much like the life of its owner the future of this vehicular anti-hero is destined for nothing but luckless tragedy. Fortunately for both there can be no true beauty without decay. – Thomas Falkiner (Pic: Getty Images)