My big takeaway from back-to-back viewings of Bruce Robinson’s Withnail & I and Robert Altman’s Gosford Park is thus: no matter their class or station, the English are not very good at relaxing.
In the case of Gosford Park, this is because the so-called “holiday” shooting party set to pop off the wealthy industrialist Sir William McCordle’s sprawling country estate is, for all involved, work. For the aristocracy, such social obligations are pretty much the entire gig, if not for explicit, business-y networking reasons then at as an opportunity to at least keep up appearances; to slip on that tux or fur and play the part of the well-heeled English gentleman-or-woman, never mind the fact that you’re secretly a murder or, even worse, poor. It’s a transactional exchange well understood by Jeremy Northam’s sardonic movie star Ivor Novello, who knows full well that regardless of the invite he’s basically at Gosford just to be the weekend’s entertainment—the wealthy twits’ cocktail-lounge pianist, minus the brandy glass full of one-dollar tips.
R&R proves likewise elusive for the titular buffoons of Withnail & I—as does any reliable food source, electricity, heat, or the expectation of not being sexually assaulted by a fat Londoner with a squirrely mustache. For Withnail and “I” [aka Marwood] the misery of the duo’s misbegotten weekend away from the city is the direct result of poor planning, brains so addled by alcohol and other drugs that they fail to anticipate the fact they probably should have hit up the Piggly Wiggly for basic provisions before hitting the road, that “Chez Uncle Monty” is not in fact an all-inclusive Jamaican resort with a swim-up cocktail bar.
But regardless of their shard lack of chill, Gosford’s petty patricians and Withnail’s underemployed neurotics each respond to their doomed countryside jaunts much differently. In Altman’s film, the eventual locked-room murder of Michael Gambon’s bellicose Sir William is reacted to as a surprisingly minor event, an unpleasant distraction roughly on par, hospitality-wise, with running out of hot water. Really, the slaying of their host doesn’t seem to phase these people one bit—or even cause that much disruption in the weekend’s itinerary.
By contrast, Withnail and Marwood react to every little setback as if it were a melodramatic blow straight out of Shakespeare. What else would you expect two unemployed British theater actors soaked to their skeletons with booze and dirty, Altamont-era hippie speed? Withnail is an especially choice piece of work, a man-shaped bundle of hysterical tics slathered in puce warming jelly, feet wrapped in plastic bread bags for lack of proper rubber rain galoshes. Of course, Withnail is similar to Gosford Park’s upper-crust do-nothings in that he’s concerned pretty much exclusively with himself. When an escaped bull threatens Marwood, Withnail [having leaped to safety like the diehard instinctual coward he is] can only smoke and laugh. The same goes for when Marwood is nearly raped by Uncle Monty, whose hospitality—effete, would-be sex criminal or not—the duo has taken cruel advantage of.
And then there’s Richard E. Grant, who appears in both Withnail and Gosford as yet another link between the two films, though Grant’s surly Gosford butler George doesn’t really slice through Altman’s overstuffed ensemble the way some others do. We get the implication that George is supposedly even more resentful of his aristocratic employers than is standard for the era’s downstairs-types; and the character is positioned as one of a handful of prime suspects [low key spoiler alert] in Sir William’s murder. But it’s a far cry from Withnail’s exceedingly watchable, histrionic tantrums.
Nevertheless, the actor’s smarmy Brit-dick charisma is unimpeachable. George even seems a bit like Withnail’s more stealthily prickish interwar granddad [even though Withnail’s ancestors are undoubtedly upstairs folk judging by Uncle Monty]. So really, if you want to see Grant the acting equivalent of Yngwie Malmsteen shred guitar, check out Withnail. If you want to watch him sit back in the pocket and provide solid support like a great bass player [Mike Gordon?] watch Gosford. And if you want to see him as a 19th-century Hugh Grant type wasting vampires, head straight for Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
For years, I’ve dreamed of going to England. Not to visit London or Liverpool or any place like that, but just to sit by the fire in an old house out on the Moors totally removed from any noise or distraction. And I still do, despite ample evidence provided by both Withnail & I and Gosford Park that this would be a very, very bad idea. But hey, what’s the worst that could happen? [Cut to: Matt being poisoned, stabbed and forced to pluck a chicken with bags on his feet, in that precise order.]