Oh dear, I've had a bit to drink.
When I first saw the film, I was amazed by its final punch. All the way through, we laugh and laugh at these two characters' foibles, and then suddenly it turns into tragedy, with Marwood leaving, Withnail suddenly realising his dependence on Marwood, and the Hamlet speech and all. And suddenly, what has been seen as comedy throughout, is cast in a different light, and the film just becomes sadder. I think that is the first element of its genius: the off-beat comedic ride, the tragically cast ending, which then throws the comedic part into a wholly different light.
That Hamlet speech still brings a tear to my eye everytime I watch the film. And this is another element of its genius. Throughout the film, Withnail is actually quite selfish and uses Marwood constantly. He is constantly dismissive, rudely so, of Marwood: stop saying we're in the same boat, we're in a park and I'm practically dead; how dare you! [when Marwood points out his 'marvelous acting career']; the selfish use of the Deep Heat; secretly using Marwood as bargaining chip. The list goes on.
But yet, we do not dislike Withnail, at least not completely. And while he cultivates a patrician facade and pretends to care [note his bravado when he says 'what fucker said that', which then quickly disappears when the big man in the pub approaches; note the nonchalance with which he responds to the bull incident while he himself is not threatened], he reveals himself as selfish, cowardly, abusive in his friendship, opportunist, false, etc.
Withnail, in other words, has many flaws, and jealousy at Marwood's success will also appear later. But the general comedic nature of their lifestyle and situation, and their interaction with various characters, keep us from judging him absolutely, even though he exhibits these flaws. And when we get to the tragic part - the end of the friendship - we are suddenly struck down because we can see that Withnail - for all his dismissive haughtiness - needs Marwood. Despite his flaws - among which arrogance - Withnail is suddenly sincerely, authentically vulnerable. And the vulnerability rests on the very friend to whom he has generally behaved in a nasty way. There is deep regret in that end scene, and that also makes the preceding comedic bits multi-faceted. When you watch the movie over and over, you realise how full it is of foreshadowing. And only when you watch the movie over and over do you realise this aspect too of its genius.
Parallel to this development (the movement for Withnail from disdainful arrogance, and therefore apparent super confidence, to abject vulnerability) is Marwood's movement from a perverted dependence on and sympathy for Withnail (I must go discuss his problems, and so denying his own anxieties, on top of Withnail's disregard for them; Marwood constantly needs Withnail's approval; Withnail is the agent really of what they do when, etc.) to an acting job and independence. This is expressed with conviction when he refuses the last drink in the park. Marwood is in fact sloughing off a dependence he never needed to have had. This is all genius, a psychological portrayal without kowtowing to French New Realism conventions, and a film of drama without a plot in the conventional, Hollywood sense.
And this is all carried by superb acting and directing of acting. Nor should we disregard the directing of photography - those close-ups of facial expressions that flirt with a soap opera style, but uses it only elementally (parallel: Robinson's insistence that the actors play it straight rather than camp). This coming together of acting and on-face camera work is a hallmark of UK film (excepting stuff like that of that Rock n' Rolla fella, who I don't think can make a decent film). So Withnail & I also nods to tradition. I tell you, it is all genius.
I like it that it is a cult film - in the sense that there is a community who truly appreciate the film; but I also hate it that it is boxed in by that label, ghettoised as a manner of speaking. Because it is a work of genius as film and deserves to be recognised as such, and not simply as a film about and for slackers who like their drink and drugs. It's not just something for anoraks to quote dialogue from. It is a piece of art that should be recognised as such along with the other monuments of narrative film. It is masterfully constructed; its dialogue, apart from its sharp wit and poeticisms, is a rich lode of double-meaning and fore-shadowing. What's more, it's like a really good, heavy but unpretentious red, one that also ages very well.
That's my paean to Bruce Robinson, REG, McGann, Griffiths, and all others who made this film!
...drinking cider, discussing butter