Sunday, October 28, 2007

Escape all this Hideousness!

The Impostume is marvellous on Withnail & I, a film which deserves rather more intelligent discussion than the drinking game studentiness that it is usually lumbered with. Perhaps not on a formal level - naturally it doesn't exactly experiment in with the very perameters of the medium, but is exquisitely put together. That depressive seediness is conveyed by sets (Monty's flat evoking Des Essientes as an ageing homosexual) locations (that caff, the Finchley towerblocks, a rural landscape as cold and unforgiving as North London), music (especially Al Bowlly, establishing Monty's one-time bright-young-thing interwar mileu) and devices (almost every scene seems to begin with someone entering a room, peculiarly) as much as performances. It might be televisual sometimes, but for a film about thesps, it's never just filmed theatre.

The film's language, with its exquisitely odd intonations and cadences or its more famous verbal fireworks is, quite rightly, what any analysis of it would focus on. Thinking about it (not easy, with something this familiar), the depiction of Withnail and Monty's extravagance, their love of rhetorical flourishes and pronouncements, can't help but seem tied up with Marwood's (and, if you'll excuse the biographism, Bruce Robinson's) class. This might seem predictable from here, but it's interesting how often it seems to be assumed that the two are both down-at-heel for the same reason. On the contrary, it's only Withnail who is able to get keys for houses in Penrith at will, leading to the supremely haute bourgeois formulation 'free to those who can afford it: very expensive to those that can't'.

For all Withnail's attempts to establish him in some sort of context (Monty) would undertand, Marwood didn't go to the other place. His dulcet non-accent slips here and there, especially when he's naked, in a corner. Withnail could be saved perhaps, from his poverty, if not his alcoholism, by the family he never talks about. 'They don't like me being on stage'. 'Well, they must be delighted with your career', sneers Marwood in a rare moment where he rivals Withnail's bitchiness. Withnail's rants, pomposity and grandiosity are admired from a distance where you just don't talk like that but are amazed and impressed that anyone would. There's an envy in that distance as much as an admiration. That facility with language, ineffectual and self-destructive as it may be, is enviable for a jittery lower-middle class junior thesp like Marwood, that one could be (admittedly in a hysterical manner) so comfortable, so immersed in words that even several whiskies, pills and lighters down you can declaim in fantastically elegant English. And (biographism alert again) that can then be acquired by the nervous upstart, as can be seen in Robinson's similarly linguistically pitched novel, and the interviews in the collection Smoking in Bed - demonstrating an eloquence and perversity that might come naturally to Etonian Withnails immersed in books from an early age, but rather less so for highly-strung boys from Broadstairs.


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