I HAVE an unimaginative excuse for not remembering the Sixties. I was only nine when they ended and thus in blissful ignorance of the Maharishi, flower-power, love-ins, live-ins and be-ins. (The fully-initiated excuse their amnesia differently. I have a feeling that it was George Harrison who said that if you can remember the Sixties, you were never really there, implying that the epoch's most diligent pupils existed in a psychedelic ecstasy, oblivious to almost everything under the clouds of Woodstock.)
Anyway, it all seems a long time ago and the revisionists have arrived. Whatever the Sixties represented is now viewed either patronisingly or dismissively; and that decade's disciples, emerging uncamouflaged, are damned as "ageing hippies". Bruce Robinson, author of The Killing Fields was a struggling actor at the time and seems to recall the struggle well. In his directorial debut, Withnail And I (Odeon, Haymarket, '15') through a semi-autobiographical portrait of two unemployed actors in 1969, he allows us to share what are clearly fond memories of a time now desperately discredited.
Nothing much happens in the lives of struggling actors (they usually become busy only with success) and here the struggling takes a familiar form. Keith Reid's "A Whiter Shade of Pale" drones the soundtrack. Robinson's alter-ego, Marwood (Paul McGann) sits pensively in John Lennon glasses, greasy hair and clothes (one fears immediately that he will also claim to be a poet, a fear soon justified). Withnail, (Richard E Grant) complains stridently about the absence of alcohol and the impossibility of keeping warm. They spend their dole cheques on drink, cigarettes and drugs. They pursue unintelligable conversations with their permanently-stoned drugdealer.
When the battle against poverty becomes too depressing, they decide to go and stay in Withnail's uncle Monty's cottage in the Lake District, only to discover that however dreadful
London is, the country is even worse. Finally, Marwood successfully auditions for a part, cuts his hair and packs his bags for the real world, a career and the start of the new decade, leaving Withnail addicted to drink, self-destruction and the delusions of 1969.
This is therefore principally a comedy of words rather than action; and in Withnail, Robinson has created one of the best comic characters of recent British cinema: duplicitous, ungrateful, narcissistic, but epigrammatically cantankerous. (Like many comedians, he is amusing to watch but would be hell to live with.) In a generally very funny script, he is given the best jokes. When his agent tells him that the only work available is as an understudy in a Chekhov production, Withnail is not the man to detect silver linings or to express enthusiasm: "I hate those Russian plays anyway. They're full of women staring out of windows and talking about ducks flying to Moscow."
Grant is exactly right for the part, a haggard prima donna, a tragi-comic walking hang-over ever in search of a cigarette butt. McGann has a politeness and a charm which make him an irresistibly attractive personality. And despite trying to assume the indescribable appearance of a late-Sixties pop star, he has the impossible good looks of Leonardo's John the Baptist.
This film is utterly English. In its determination to find comedy in the squalor of their flat, it recalls "Steptoe and Son". When sensitive but sybaritic Monty (Richard Griffiths) descends on his cottage in the dead of night, Withnail and Marwood mistake his arrival for the murderous advances of a local poacher. The ensuing panic-stricken running from one bedroom to another reminds one of English stage farce, of Brian Rix detrousered. An absurd scene with a rampant bull in a field, innuendo in the air and the ludicrously incongruous, implacably urban Withnail, cowering behind a wall, somehow suggested the humour of "Carry On".
The acting is perhaps too English. Although good, it is theatrical. In some of the interior scenes, the actors behave as though on stage, straining to reach the back of the gallery, pacing their comic timing to allow for audience reaction.
Neither uneasy about the costumed past nor embittered about the threadbare present, unburdened by the propaganda of much contemporary native cinema, Withnail is merely happy to amuse, to say without shame that the Sixties were glorious fun