Withnail & I

Movie review by
Stefan Pape, Common Sense Media
Withnail & I Movie Poster Image
British cult classic about two alcoholics; much profanity.
  • R
  • 1987
  • 107 minutes

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

Despite its comedic tone, alcoholism is at the heart of the movie. Characters struggle to overcome their addictions and climb out of the dire professional and financial situations they find themselves in.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Both Withnail and Marwood are struggling professionally and financially. They both have an unhealthy affliction for alcohol and subsequently struggle to take control of their lives. Marwood does have a conscience and strives to do right, but Withnail is reckless and irresponsible. He breaks the law when driving drunk and without a license. Supporting characters offer little by way of optimism and hope, with Monty making sexual advances toward Marwood in a somewhat forceful and predatory way.

Violence

A character wields a hunting rifle indoors, and prods a chicken carcass with it. He accidentally shoots the gun into the ceiling. Another scene sees threat come in the form of an angry and intimidating bull. Some sexual behavior could be described as predatory and forceful.

Sex

There is suggestion of a young actor trading sex for roles in the industry. Character attempts to seduce another into bed, but they manage to break free. Some nudity in the form of a picture of a topless model on a bathroom wall. 

Language

The language is consistent and frequent. Countless uses of the word "f--k" and "f--k off." "Bastard" is also used frequently, as is "s--t." Discriminatory language includes a character being called a "raving homosexual," "toilet trader," and "ponce." Use of racist language when a black character is referred to as a "spade." There are two uses of the word "c--t." Character shouts at school children out of a car window, calling them "tarts" and encouraging people to throw themselves into the road.

Consumerism
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Barely a scene passes without seeing the characters smoking cigarettes and drinking alcohol. They don't just drink alcohol, they talk about their dependency on it, struggling to kill time before the pubs open. In there desperation for alcohol, characters resort to drinking lighter fluid. Characters openly discuss their desire to get drunk or "wrecked" and are frequently shown to be under the influence. In one scene, characters cause a commotion in a cafe when they demand more wine. One character is stopped for driving recklessly while inebriated. A character rolls a mammoth joint of cannabis, which is smoked communally with the participants becoming incredibly high.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Withnail & I is considered an all-time British cult classic that while comedic in its execution, shows the destruction of alcoholism. The two leads, Withnail (Richard E. Grant) and Marwood (Paul McGann) live in squalor, and are deeply unhappy, with so little hope in their future. They are addicted to alcohol and readily admit that they have a dependency on it, and drink purely just to get drunk. In the midst of their addictions, they are willing to drink anything, even lighter fluid in a bid to fulfill their needs. Both characters smoke in almost every single scene, and later on in the movie they pass around a gigantic cannabis joint. The language is very strong, with "f--k" featuring frequently, as well as the use of "c--t" on two occasions. There is also racist language used toward a black character and occasional homophobic slurs. Uncle Monty (Richard Griffiths) is quite forceful in his means of seduction, despite the victim, Marwood, saying no to his advances on several occasions. By way of peril and threat there is a scene when a character waves a gun around and shoots it accidentally into the ceiling.

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What's the story?

WITHNAIL & I is set in 1969, in the filthy London abode of two unemployed actors, Withnail (Richard E. Grant) and Marwood (Paul McGann). Disgusted by the squalor that surrounds them, they decide to go on a holiday to the countryside, courtesy of Withnail's eccentric uncle, Monty (Richard Griffiths). Though it seems no matter where they go, they can't escape the overwhelming sense of bleak desperation.

Is it any good?

This is a cult classic, the sort of movie you could recite over and over, and it has garnered this adoration and status for a reason; it's just brilliant cinema. The blend of comedy with pity and sadness is so expertly crafted, Withnail & I has some of the most iconic one-liners in British film history. Yet it is enriched by the profound sadness of the characters that inhabit this desolate landscape. Set in 1969, it's a damning social study of England with kitchen-sink realism.

The two central performances are just striking too, as both Grant and McGann bring so much vulnerability and nuance to these two hopeless alcoholics. The supporting cast more than do their bit, helped along by being so well-written by writer/director Bruce Robinson, who brings out hilarious turns by Griffiths as Uncle Monty and Ralph Brown as the drug-dealing Danny. It's worth noting that the film is dated in some regards, the discriminatory slurs in particular. But the movie excels in its now-notorious one-liners. Lines such as "we demand the finest wines known to humanity" and "we've gone on holiday by mistake" have become nearly as integral a part of British culture as a cup of tea.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about how Withnail & I depicts drinking. Why do Withnail and Marwood drink so much? What are the results of their drinking? What consequences do they face? Do they seem realistic?

  • Do you think Withnail and Marwood want help from anyone? How can you help a loved one who might be an alcoholic/addict?

  • Discuss the strong language used in the movie. Does it seem necessary or excessive? What does it contribute to the movie? There are some outdated and hurtful racial and homophobic slurs in the movie. Discuss how language evolves and why this is important.

  • The movie is considered by many to to be a cult classic. What do you think makes a film be considered this way? Do you have a favorite movie that might be considered a cult classic?

Movie details

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