The film depicts the lives and misadventures of two unemployed young actors in late-1969 London. They are the flamboyant alcoholic Withnail and "I" (named "Marwood" in the published screenplay but not in the credits) as his relatively more level-headed friend and the film's narrator. Withnail comes from a privileged background and sets the tone for the friendship. They live in a filthy Georgian flat in Camden Town. Their only company at the flat is the local drug dealer, Danny.
The roommates squabble about housekeeping and leave to take a walk. In Regent's Park, they discuss the state of their acting careers and a possible country vacation, settling on a visit to Withnail's uncle Monty, who has a cottage near Penrith. After a near fight with a large and belligerent Irishman, they return home to prepare for their trip. They visit Monty that evening at his luxurious Chelsea house. Monty is a melodramatic aesthete and Marwood realises he is homosexual. The three briefly drink together as Withnail casually lies to Monty about his acting career and lies that Marwood went to Eton. Before leaving, Withnail arranges to borrow the cottage.
The countryside is beautiful, but the weather is cold and often inclement, the cottage is without running water or light, they have no food and the locals are unwelcoming – in particular a poacher, Jake, whom Withnail offends. They see Jake prowling around their cottage. Marwood suggests they leave for London the next day. Withnail in turn demands that they share a bed in the interest of safety, but Marwood refuses. During the night, Withnail becomes paranoid that the poacher is going to come after them and climbs under the covers with Marwood, who angrily leaves for a different bed. Hearing the sounds of an intruder breaking into the cottage, Withnail again joins Marwood in bed. The intruder turns out to be Monty, who has been stranded with a punctured tyre.
Monty has brought supplies and persistently comes on to Marwood. He offers to take them into town to get fitted into rubber boots, but they end up spending the money he gave them on drinks. Monty is hurt, though he puts it out of his mind quickly during a boozy round of poker. Marwood is terrified of what else Monty might try on him and wants to leave immediately. After much argument, Withnail insists on staying. Late in the night, Marwood keeps trying to evade Monty but he eventually corners him in the guest bedroom. Monty reveals that Withnail, when arranging to borrow the cottage, had told Monty that Marwood was a closeted homosexual and that he himself had rejected Marwood's advances. Marwood claims that Withnail is the closeted one and that the two of them have been in a committed relationship for years. He claims that Withnail is only rejecting him because Monty is around, and that this is the first night that they haven't slept together in years. Monty, a romantic, accepts this explanation and apologises for coming between them. In private, Marwood furiously confronts Withnail and insists that he will pay.
The next morning, Marwood finds that Monty has left for London, leaving a note of apology wishing them happiness together. They continue to argue about their behaviour and Monty. When Marwood receives a telegram about a callback from an earlier audition, he insists they return to London.
As Marwood sleeps, Withnail drunkenly speeds and swerves until pulled over by the police. Withnail is arrested for driving under the influence, and tries to falsify his urine sample. The pair return to the flat to find Danny and a stranger named Presuming Ed squatting there. Marwood calls his agent and discovers that he is wanted for the lead part in a play. The three, and Presuming Ed, get high smoking a huge cannabis joint. The celebration ends when Marwood learns they have received an eviction notice for unpaid rent, while Withnail is too high to care.
Marwood prepares to leave for the station, turning down Withnail's request for one last drink. In Regent's Park in the rain, Marwood confesses that he will miss Withnail, but does not allow him to accompany him further to the station. Bottle of wine in hand, Withnail declaims "What a piece of work is a man!" from Hamlet to an uncomprehending pack of wolves behind a fence in the London Zoo. The camera watches as he turns and walks away into the gloomy distance, swinging the bottle, as the credits start to roll.Richard E. Grant as WithnailPaul McGann as "...& I"Richard Griffiths as Uncle MontyRalph Brown as DannyMichael Elphick as JakeEddie Tagoe as Presuming EdDaragh O'Malley as IrishmanMichael Wardle as Isaac ParkinUna Brandon-Jones as Mrs ParkinNoel Johnson as General
The film is an adaptation of an unpublished novel written by Robinson in late 1969. Actor friend Don Hawkins passed a copy of the manuscript to his friend, the wealthy oil heir Moderick Schreiber in 1980. Schreiber, looking to break into the film industry, paid Robinson a few thousand pounds sterling to adapt it into a screenplay, which Robinson did in the early 1980s. On completing the script, producer Paul Heller urged Robinson to direct it and found funding for half the film. The script was then passed to HandMade Films. After he read it, George Harrison agreed to fund the remainder of the film.
Robinson's script is largely autobiographical. "Marwood" is Robinson; "Withnail" is based on Vivian MacKerrell, a friend with whom he shared a Camden house, and "Uncle Monty" is loosely based on Franco Zeffirelli from whom Robinson received unwanted amorous attentions when he was a young actor. He lived in the impoverished conditions seen in the film and wore plastic bags as Wellington boots. For the script, Robinson condensed four or five years of his life into two weeks.
The narrative is told in the first person by the character played by Paul McGann, named just once in passing in the film (see below) as Marwood, and only credited as "I".
Early in the film, Withnail reads from an article headlined "Boy Lands Plum Role For Top Italian Director" and then goes on to imply that the director is sexually abusing the boy. This is a reference to the sexual harassment that Robinson alleges he suffered at the hands of Italian director Franco Zeffirelli when, as a young man, he won the role of Benvolio in Romeo and Juliet.
The end of the novel saw Withnail committing suicide by pouring a bottle of wine into the barrel of Monty's gun and then pulling the trigger as he drank from it. Robinson changed the ending, as he believed it was "too dark."
According to Danny's speech at the end of the film, 'We are 91 days from the end of this decade and there's gonna be a lot of refugees'. This means the drug addled scene after the pair return from Penrith occurs on Thursday 2 October, 1969, six weeks after Woodstock and three days before the first broadcast of Monty Python's Flying Circus. It is not known if Robinson intended any significance by including such a specific date.
Denis O'Brien, who oversaw the filming on behalf of HandMade Films, nearly shut the film down three days into the shoot. He thought that the film had no "discernible jokes" and was badly lit.
The film cost £1.1 million to make. Robinson received £80,000 to direct, £30,000 of which he reinvested into the film to shoot additional scenes such as the journeys to and from Penrith, which HandMade Films would not fund. He was never reimbursed his money after the film's success.
Paul McGann was Robinson's first choice for "I", but he was fired during rehearsals because Robinson decided McGann's Liverpool accent was wrong for the character. Several other actors read for the role, but McGann eventually persuaded Robinson to re-audition him, promising to affect a Home Counties accent. He quickly won back the part.
Actors who were considered for the part of "Withnail" included Daniel Day-Lewis, Bill Nighy and Kenneth Branagh. Robinson claims that he told Richard E. Grant that "half of you has got to go", and put him on a diet to play the part although Grant denies this in the 1999 documentary "Withnail and Us". The role of Withnail was Grant's first in film and launched him into a successful career.
Though playing a raging alcoholic, Grant himself is a teetotaller with a health condition preventing him from properly processing alcohol. He had therefore never been drunk prior to making the film. Robinson decided that it would be impossible for Grant to play the character without having ever experienced inebriation and a hangover, and thus "forced" the actor on a drinking binge. Grant has stated that he was "violently sick" after each drink, and found the experience as a whole deeply unpleasant.
During the filming of the scene in which the lighter fluid is consumed, Robinson changed the contents of the can, which had been filled with water, to vinegar. While the vomiting is scripted, the facial expression is totally natural.
The film was not shot entirely on location. There was no filming in the real Penrith, the locations used were in and around nearby Shap and Bampton. Monty's cottage, "Crow Crag", is actually Sleddale Hall, located near the Wet Sleddale Reservoir just outside Shap, although the lake that "Crow Crag" apparently overlooks is actually Haweswater Reservoir.
Sleddale Hall was offered for sale in January 2009; a trust has been created by fans who wish collectively to purchase the building for its preservation as a piece of British film history. It was sold at auction for £265,000 on 16 February 2009. The starting price was £145,000. It was bought by Sebastian Hindley, who owns the Mardale Inn in the nearby village of Bampton, which did not feature in the film. Hindley was unable to raise the necessary finances and in August 2009 the property was resold for an undisclosed sum to Tim Ellis, an architect from Kent, whose original bid failed at the auction.
The bridge where Withnail and Marwood go fishing is located at the bottom of the hill below Sleddale Hall, a quarter of a mile away. The telephone box where Withnail calls his agent is beside the main road in Bampton.Hertfordshire
Although exterior and ground floor interior shots of Crow Crag were shot at Sleddale Hall, Stockers Farm in Rickmansworth was used for the bedroom and stair scenes. Stockers Farm was also the location for the "Crow and Crown" pub.Milton Keynes
The "King Henry" pub and the "Penrith Tea Rooms" scenes were filmed in the Market Square in Stony Stratford, Milton Keynes at what is now the "Crown Inn" and Cox & Robinsons Chemists.London
"The Mother Black Cap" pub in the film was in reality "The Frog and Firkin" pub in Tavistock Crescent, Westbourne Green. For some time after the film, it was officially called "The Mother Black Cap". It has since been demolished. Withnail and Marwood's flat was located at 57 Chepstow Place in Bayswater (W2). The shot of them leaving for Penrith as they turn left from the building being demolished was shot on Freston road (W11). The cafe where Marwood has breakfast at the beginning of the film is located at the corner of Ladbroke Grove and Lancaster Road. The scene where Withnail and Marwood are ordered to "get in the back of the van" was filmed on the flyover near John Aird Court, Paddington. The final scene was shot in Regent's Park. Uncle Monty's house is actually the West House, Glebe Place, Chelsea, SW3.Shepperton Studios
Police Station interior was shot at the studios.
Although the first name of 'I' is not stated anywhere in the film, it is widely believed that it is 'Peter'. This myth arose as a result of a line of misheard dialogue. In the scene where Monty meets the two actors, Withnail asks him if he would like a drink. In his reply, Monty both accepts his offer and says "...you must tell me all the news, I haven't seen you since you finished your last film". While pouring another drink, and downing his own, Withnail replies that he has been "Rather busy uncle. TV and stuff". Then pointing at Marwood he says "He's just had an audition for rep". Some fans hear this line as "Peter's had an audition for rep", although the original shooting script and all commercially published versions of the script read "he's".
The "I" character's name is given as 'Marwood' in the original screenplay. It has been suggested that it is possible that 'Marwood' can be heard near the beginning of the film: As the characters escape from the Irishman in the Mother Black Cap, Withnail shouts "Get out of my way!". Some hear this line as "Out of the way, Marwood!", although the script reads simply "Get out of my way!".
There is, however, one occasion in the film where the name 'Marwood' is given, though not stated. Toward the end of the film a telegram arrives at Crow Crag and as Withnail reads the note, the name 'Marwood' appears to be visible, upside-down, on the envelope. 'I' is now widely accepted as 'Marwood', as this was the name that was used in the script of 'Withnail and I', but due to the fact that the story is told from Marwood's point of view, he is considered as 'I'. In the end credits and most media relating to the film, McGann's character is referenced solely as "...& I."
However, in the supplemental material packaged with the Special Edition DVD in the UK, McGann's character is referred to as Peter Marwood in the cast credits.
The film had a UK gross of £565,112 and a US gross of $1,544,889. DVD and VHS sales have been quite strong throughout the years, and the film has gained cult status with a number of websites dedicated to the film itself. In 2000, readers of Total Film voted Withnail and I the third greatest comedy film of all time. In 2004 the same magazine named it the 13th greatest British film of all time. Withnail & I was 38th in Channel 4's 100 Greatest Films poll.
The film holds a 94% "fresh" rating, and an average rating of 8.5 out of 10 from critic website Rotten Tomatoes. In August 2009 The Observer polled 60 eminent British film filmmakers and film critics who voted it the second best British film of the last 25 years. The film was also ranked number 118 in Empire's 500 Greatest Films of all Time list. In 2009 critic Roger Ebert added the film to his "Great Movies" list, describing Grant's performance as a "tour de force" and Withnail as "one of the iconic figures in modern films."
In 2007 a digitally remastered version of the film was released by the UK Film Council. It was shown at over fifty cinemas around the UK on 11 September, as part of the final week of the BBC's "Summer of British Film" season.
In 2011, Time Out London named it the 7th-greatest comedy film of all time.
There is a drinking game associated with the film. The game consists of keeping up, drink for drink, with each alcoholic substance consumed by Withnail over the course of the film. All told, Withnail is shown drinking roughly nine and a half glasses of red wine, half a pint of cider, one shot of lighter fluid (vinegar or overproof rum are common substitutes), two and a half shots of gin, six glasses of sherry, thirteen measures of Scotch whisky and half a pint of ale.
In 2010, McGann said that he sometimes meets viewers who believe the film was actually shot in the 1960s, saying "It comes from the mid-1980s, but it sticks out like a Smiths record. Its provenance is from a different era. None of the production values, none of the iconography, none of the style remotely has it down as an 80s picture."
The film also features a rare appearance of a recording by The Beatles, whose song "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" briefly plays as Withnail and Marwood return to London and find Presuming Ed in the bath. Although the surviving members of the group rarely licensed the use of their original recordings for feature films (cover versions were often substituted, as in the case of The Royal Tenenbaums and I Am Sam), George Harrison was one of the film's producers, and allowed its inclusion in Withnail and I.
There is a misheld belief among some fans of the film that King Curtis was murdered on the night his live performance of "A Whiter Shade of Pale" was recorded. Ralph Brown, in the audio commentary on some DVD issues, wrongly states that he was shot in the car park after the concert. Curtis was stabbed to death in August 1971, some five months after the recording was made in March 1971. The recording comes from Curtis's album Live at Fillmore West.
- "A Whiter Shade of Pale" (live) – King Curtis – 5:25
- "Piano Sonata in B Flat Major, D960" - Franz Schubert, performed by Leslie Pearson
- "The Wolf" – David Dundas and Rick Wentworth – 1:33
- "All Along the Watchtower" (reduced tempo) – Jimi Hendrix – 4:10
- "To the Crow" – David Dundas and Rick Wentworth – 2:22
- "Voodoo Child (Slight Return)" (live) – Jimi Hendrix – 4:28
- "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" – The Beatles – 4:44
- "Marwood Walks" – David Dundas and Rick Wentworth – 2:14
- "Monty Remembers" – David Dundas and Rick Wentworth – 2:02
- "La Fite" – David Dundas and Rick Wentworth – 1:10
- "Hang Out the Stars in Indiana" – Al Bowlly and New Mayfair Dance Orchestra – 1:35
- "Crow Crag" – David Dundas and Rick Wentworth – 0:56
- "Cheval Blanc" – David Dundas and Rick Wentworth – 1:15
- "My Friend" – Charlie Kunz – 1:28
- "Withnail's Theme" – David Dundas and Rick Wentworth – 2:40