Richard E. Grant is a joy, not just in terms of his wonderful performances in movies like Can You Ever Forgive Me? and Gosford Park, but when it comes to his energizing social media presence. His Instagram and Twitter feeds are floods of positivity. Even his promotional posts are charming — he announced that he was about to go on the press circuit for Dispatches from Elsewhere by throwing himself backward onto a hotel bed. And even though he’s a famous face, he seems to be just as starstruck by other actors as the average person on the street (see: just how much he loves Barbra Streisand). Ever wanted to see Richard E. Grant dance in heels? Check. Sing while walking through Times Square? Check. Have his nose licked by a cat? Check.
Recently, he’s also started to revisit the role that launched his film career: Withnail from the 1987 dark comedy Withnail and I. On March 20, Grant posted a video of himself reciting a couple of lines from the film, while ensconced in what appears to be a blanket fort. On the 21st, he posted a second Withnail video, and yet another the next day. Then, on the 23rd, Grant noted that the line he was reciting this time reminded him of the “grim coronavirus news,” ending the clip with an improvised, “Corona[virus] be damned!” Since then, he’s posted a new Withnail & I recitation every day, calling the project “Withnail & Isolation.” The recreations have gotten more elaborate as well, featuring different props and locations — and even cows.
Withnail & I, written and directed by Bruce Robertson, is a cult classic, often cited as one of the greatest British films of all time. The film revolves around two unemployed actors, Withnail and Marwood (Paul McGann), who go on a holiday to the English countryside. The trip never manages to be relaxing, as Withnail’s constant lying and alcoholism only worsen the messes they’re drawn into.
Withnail isn’t an ideal friend — he practically sells Marwood off in exchange for being able to stay at his uncle’s cottage — and the movie is ultimately about Marwood’s decision to end a longstanding, valued, but toxic friendship. But the movie never feels depressing. Instead, it feels true. Everyone has known, or known of someone with, a friend like Withnail, and Robertson doesn’t go out of his way to try to redeem or explain Withnail’s behavior. Grant doesn’t hold back, either — even when Withnail is at his most pitiable, he’s aggressive in a way that stops viewers just short of feeling totally comfortable with him.
Part of what makes watching Grant revisit the role so wonderful is not just that he’s recreating a movie many people love, or the implication that Grant himself still isn’t tired of it. It’s the novelty of seeing an “old” Withnail. The Withnail of the film drinks lighter fluid in his search for alcohol, and seems simultaneously exhausted and revving to go. He’s burning the candle at both ends, and he never seems like a man with a long future in front of him. So seeing him in old age, hale and hearty, feels like a relief. Even Withnail is making it through the pandemic!
But these videos aren’t just mana for Withnail & I fans. Some of the quotes make sense out of context, like Grant’s post for a particularly cold day. Others are just nonsense. But the thing that makes them all accessible is Grant’s sheer joy in delivering them. Though he says the lines in character, he almost immediately breaks into wheezes of laughter, and sometimes adds on extra messages, such as wishing viewers a happy Easter or tacking on exclamations. (“Indeed!”) Fans don’t need to be familiar with Withnail to be delighted by these videos, which so far range in length from just 4 to 27 seconds. They’re like cinephile lip-sync TikToks — you don’t need to recognize the audio source for the video to be funny.
As sources of laughter become rarer, Grant’s is a balm, and the way he’s chosen to convey it is not only a nod to his fans and his most infamous role, but a source of pleasant chaos for those unfamiliar with him. Even if your only acquaintance with Grant is from his role in The Rise of Skywalker, seeing him so bright and happy, as opposed to dour à la Allegiant General Pryde, can be a treat. The recreations are also an extension of just how joyful his social media presence normally is. Even though he’s shooting and distributing them in self-isolation, he’s modeling a kind of joy that serves as a brief reprieve from oppressive current events.
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