Withnail and I, a British masterpiece from 1987, is so profligate with its brilliance that if it has a problem, it's that it's one of those movies which too easily reduces itself to scene-spotting and quote-topping. If I come up with 'We've gone on holiday by mistake,' you'll come back with 'I feel like a pig shat in my head.' If you announce, 'We are not drunks, we are multi-millionaires!' then I reply with, 'I think it's time to release you from the legumes, and transfer your talents to the meat.' If I say, 'The entire sink's gone rotten,' you say, 'Then the fucker will rue the day!' And so on. It is an obsessional movie, a movie about obsession. And it makes its admirers into obsessives as well.
If it has a plot at all then it notionally concerns one thing: the attempts of failed actors Withnail (played by Richard E Grant, magnificently hysterical) and Marwood, his pal (played by Paul McGann, just on the edge of sanity, a look of constant terror on his face, as if about to be dragged into a threshing machine), to get wasted, even to the brink of death. No drug is too foul or too inappropriate: from speed, to lighter fluid, to dope, to anti-freeze, nothing is beneath contempt.
The drug of choice, though, the one that really gets them through the day, is alcohol. 'A pair of quadruple whiskies,' gasps WIthnail at closing time, 'and a pair of pints.' In a genteel tea-shop, he yells, 'We want the finest wines available to humanity', shortly before being thrown out. Indeed, about the second thing that happens in the movie is Withnail announcing, in sepulchral tones, 'I've some extremely distressing news...We just ran out of wine.' Wine, a baffingly patrician drink for such a pair of low-lifers, is the release they crave.
And they get it, in quantity, at Uncle Monty's frightful country cottage. A chapter of accidents sees them flee London for some quiet time in a nameless part of the North. Monty, a vision of magisterial camp, delineated to perfection by Richard Griffiths, unexpectedly turns up with the right stuff. 'Which of you,' he asks, gazing humidly at the two young men, 'is going to be a splendid fellow and go down to the Rolls for the rest of the wine?' And the wine certainly looks pretty good, as they work their way through it, in the form of an accompaniment for a leg of lamb and in purely spontaneous, hard core boozing.
It should look good, because it actually is. Bruce Robinson, the mad genius - as writer and director - behind Withnail apparently acquired a job lot of superb wines from an idiot in Manchester who didn't know what he had. It came from a hotel that was closing down, where the proprietor had a load of old drink which he reckoned was 'muck' and far too musty to sell to anyone with a taste for the good life. The muck included Chateaux Beychevelle, Petrus and Margaux, two hundred bottles in all, for which Robinson paid a couple of hundred quid. His plan was to use them as props in the film then auction them at Sotheby's afterwards and make a small fortune.
As it turned out, the cast and crew (with the exception of Richard E Grant, a teetoller, not that you can tell from his peerless impression of an out-of-control toper) drank the lot, in the space of a fortnight. According to Robinson, 'It was saveloy and chips with...shall we have the Beychevelle or Margaux?' In the end, only the empty bottles remained, Grant sharing the final scene of the film with what was once a '53 Margaux, plus the wolves at London Zoo.
As it turns out, Withnail and I is in reality a rite-of-passage movie, quite touching by the end, but a movie set in such an exorbitantly degenerate landscape that internal and external chaos are only a sudden flinch away. One, also, in which great wines get necked as if they were straight out of the remainders bin. Which is one very good reason why the film is such a classic: its integrity, its fidelity to the whole ethos of derangement is such that not only do its makers appear to be downing the finest wines available to humanity without even a backward glance, they really were downing them. This anarchic generosity of spirit, this crazed identification with the film's characters, floods through the movie itself, making it luminous with truth, and even a rancid kind of love. Is it the last truly great British movie? I'm inclined to hold my glass up to the fading light and repeat the words of Uncle Monty - 'There can be no true beauty without decay,' and nod, sagely.