Withnail & I

Directed by Bruce Robinson


They leave Camden in I’s battered old Jag. Withnail, still in his suit, has a bottle and is clearly drunk. They pass some schoolgirls.


Up yours grandad!

Scrubbers! scrubbers!

Shut up.

Little tarts they love it.

Listen, I’m trying to drive this thing as quietly as possible. If you don’t shut up we’ll get stopped by the police.

The pass a notice anouncing an accident blackspot.

Look at that, look at that. Accident black spot. These aren’t accidents.They’re throwing themselves into the road gladly.Throwing themselves into the road to escape all this hideousness.[To a pedestrian] Throw yourselves into the road darling, you haven’t got a chance.

Somewhat later they join the motorway.

Commentary by Patrick Chester

Withnail & I, written and directed by Bruce Robinson in 1987, is a black comedy, which follows the lives of two eponymous unemployed actors. The film is set in 1969 and can be interpreted as a social satire dealing with the societal changes between the nineteen sixties and seventies. In this specific scene we are confronted with the protagonists fleeing London in the hope of finding an escape from the pressures and reality of their current existence in the countryside.

The scene opens with Hendrix’s All Along The Watchtower set against the background of a row of terrace houses being demolished by a wrecking ball. Visually and aurally this scene is extremely chaotic and the soundtrack plays an important part in establishing this effect. The lyrics of the song also mirror the themes and events depicted within the scene and this reinforces the director’s desired effect. Released in 1968, the song deals with similar themes of change, uncertainty and disillusionment. It is essentially a dialogue between a joker and a thief, who biblically represent being a fool and a sinner and thus all that is wrong with society. However, these two individuals claim, “there must be some kind of way out of here” and this suggests both urgency and a belief that society is crumbling and must be escaped. These two individuals then move on to discuss business and ploughmen who “know what any of it is worth” therefore one can see a loss in the values of society and also that of confusion. The individuals who make up society “feel that life is but a joke”, however the thief recognises that “there is no reason to get excited” and that “the hour is getting late” and reinforces this sense of urgency but also a sense of inevitability. This line could also be interpreted as a reference to some form of apocalyptic scenario. This is reinforced by the religious stereotypes of the fool, the sinner and the businessman. The final verse of the songs moves into the distance and this can be interpreted as a view into the future, the growling wild cat is representative of danger and the two approaching riders embody uncertainty but the final line which references a howling wind suggests what is approaching may be destructive. These themes of fear, change and disillusionment can all be seen in the accompanying scene, however it is extreme important to recognise the importance of humour, which gives the scene a satirical lightness and cushions the pessimistic views of Withnail.

In accompaniment to this song is the demolition of the houses, which is a visual metaphor for change and the destruction of established societal values, especially those of the protagonist who are depicted climbing into a car and driving away from this. These are images that contribute to the Mise-en-Scene. This movement in itself suggests an unwillingness to accept this change, especially as Withnail and I are seen driving away in a dilapidated Mark 2 Jaguar. This car was produced between 1959-1969 and thus can be seen as a symbol of sixties society. The car’s condition also hints at an idea of decay and destruction. Further, their movement from the city to the country symbolises the protagonist’s willingness to flee and escape their society, a physical detachment from society and ultimately their relinquishing their current society not simply the inevitable future. Moreover, the decrepit nature of the vehicle, in which they are seeking to escape the city suggests the inescapability of decay.
The film is firmly rooted in the transition from sixties culture to the seventies and this scene represents many of the changes between the two decades. The first event of this journey to the country is one in which Withnail insults a group of schoolgirls labelling them “scrubbers.” Which primarily is humourous. However this can be seen as symbolic of the rejection of the strong feminist movements, which were prevalent in the sixties. Therefore, we see a reversion towards a misogynistic society and thus represents one way in which the protagonists society has failed to live up to the promise of their generation. The girls respond by calling him granddad. This yet again insinuates decay and shows the movement from one generation to the other Withnail is fast approaching his thirties and as a result this highlights one of the ironies of their sixties values. The sixties was a generation in which a social shift took place resulting in the increased societal importance of young people, this plays into the commercial development of the sixties in which the young become an important target for advertising, thus starting to move them into the centre of commercial society for the first time. However, Withnail no longer fits into this demographic and thus the values he holds no longer really apply to his life and thus represents another failing of the protagonists goals and ideals.

This is then summed up by Withnail who witnesses an accident black spot road sign and exclaims “these aren’t accidents, they’re throwing themselves into the road gladly to escape all this hideousness” he then shouts at a pedestrian “throw yourself into the road darling you haven’t got a chance!” Here we see an extremely nihilistic viewpoint. It is clear that the “hideousness” he is talking about is society in general, the same one, which he is fleeing from. However, the fact that he implores the individual to throw himself into the road as he “hasn’t got a chance” suggests that there is no escape and that as a result life is not worth living. Withnail sees society as something, which curbs ones freedom forcing change and denying the ability to achieve certain dreams. The sixties is generally seen as a generation driven by a longing for freedom, however society stands completely against this and as a result the sixties failed. This can be seen as the reason Withnail longs for self-destruction.

While this is somewhat misanthropic it is also extremely funny. The lines are delivered in such a manner that it is clear that the main aim is one of humour. However, it is a satirical humour which aims to express the deep divisions in sixties society and the ways in which they can be seen to have failed. Ultimately we are presented with a character whose, apparent seriousness is ultimately laughable and the viewer becomes aware of the importance of black humour as an opportunity to see the comedy in even the bleakest of situations. Withnail’s life is ultimately tragic and pathetic but unavoidably hilarious.

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