Long before the advent of the cinema, human art forms concerned themselves with alcohol. Whether it was the brewing of beer in ancient Egyptian sculpture, the quaffing of wine at a symposium on the side of Greek amphora, or Roman poet Catullus suggesting a dinner party with “wine and wit and all kinds of laughter”, a tipple has always been a suitable subject for artistic expression.
Drinking and drinkers can be found throughout film history, from E.A. Dupont’s depiction of alcoholism in Alkohol (1919) to Nick and Nora’s supping of cocktails in The Thin Man (1934) which inspired the name of a cocktail glass. Certain drinks have become synonymous with movies, like the French 75 with Casablanca (1942) or the Dude’s White Russians in The Big Lebowski (1998).
Get the latest from the BFI
Sign up for BFI news, features, videos and podcasts.
The latest entry in this long lineage is Thomas Vinterberg’s Another Round (2020) in which a group of middle-aged teachers, including Mads Mikkelsen, decide to conduct an experiment. They happen on a theory that the blood alcohol level of humans is naturally 0.05% too low and take the novel approach of surreptitiously topping it up throughout the day to awaken themselves from their midlife malaise. The result is a tragi-comic tale of male friendship and the benefits and pitfalls of maintaining a little buzz.
With all this in mind, we decided to go on a bit of a bender of our own and take a leisurely crawl through 10 more cinematic tales ranging from the squiffy to downright soused – for better and worse. Cheers!
Another Round is in cinemas now.
Director: Henry Koster
When one thinks of Henry Koster’s Harvey, one tends to remember the amiable Elwood P. Dowd (Jimmy Stewart) and his six-foot tall friend, the invisible pooka-cum-rabbit of the title. What springs less readily to mind is that when we meet them, their primary pastime is visiting an array of local taverns and listening to the stories of their fellow denizens while getting increasingly sloshed.
Although a psychiatrist tells Elwood that alcoholism will not be central to his diagnosis, such concerns are rife throughout the film. In turn, the narrative ends up treating this element of the story quite subversively, presenting Elwood as a contented alcoholic. Far from the presentation of a spiralling drunk, Harvey’s story presents alcohol as a useful social lubricant and an escape from daily drudgery. It places Elwood as the role model – able to accept people for who they are and have a drink doing it.
The Noose (1958)
Director: Wojciech Has
One of the more intently serious treatments of alcoholism on this list, The Noose pips similar depictions of a drinker battling his demons over a condensed period – like Ermanno Olmi’s Golden Lion winner The Legend of a Holy Drinker (1988) or Billy Wilder’s best-picture winner The Lost Weekend (1945) – primarily through its unsettling hints at a circular structure.
The story revolves around Kuba (Gustaw Holoubek) who needs to stay sober for just one day — until his girlfriend returns from work and escorts him to the clinic. The first feature by Wojciech Has, who would go on to make surreal and narratively labyrinthine work like The Saragossa Manuscript (1964) and The Hourglass Sanatorium (1973), it’s structurally quite simple until, in its latter stages, elements from earlier begin to recur. These confuse the timeline and subtly suggest that Kuba is imprisoned in an impossible cycle that may take a bleakly drastic act to break free of.
Edna, The Inebriate Woman (1971)
Director: Ted Kotcheff
Although largely unknown to modern audiences, Ted Kotcheff’s Play for Today entry, Edna, the Inebriate Woman was something of a television blockbuster – it was watched by more than 9 million people when it was broadcast in 1971. Written by Jeremy Sandford, who had previously penned the famous Wednesday Play Cathy Come Home, it was equally a production designed to highlight a societal ill – in this case the treatment of a homeless alcoholic.
One of the more sobering entries on this list, it remains a terrific watch, not least for the excellent central performance from Patricia Hayes. Hayes was known as a comic actress and adeptly deploys her funny bone in the more light-hearted moments but also imbues Edna with real pathos in her attempts to retain some dignity. The fractured and fragmentary narrative seems designed to echo Edna’s own befuddled state.
Ticket of No Return (1979)
Director: Ulrike Ottinger
One of the more obscure entries on the list and possibly the most unusual, Ulrike Ottinger’s Ticket of No Return is a stylish and surreal journey towards a booze-addled stupor, featuring hallmarks of the 1970s New German Cinema movement. Largely eschewing conventional narrative, the film follows a nameless and fabulously dressed woman (Tabea Blumenschein) who arrives in Berlin by plane apparently intent on drinking herself to death. As she moves from bar to bar sporting a variety of dazzling couture outfits she befriends a fellow drinker considerably more down at heel (Lutze, not a million miles from Patricia Hayes’ Edna).
The woman is followed by three other passengers from the plane, well-dressed women in business attire named ‘Accurate Statistics’, ‘Common Sense’ and ‘Social Issues’. Their Greek-chorus dialogue from the next table serves to frame various societal perceptions of women who drink, while our heroine descends willingly into her nihilistic reverie.
Withnail & I (1987)
Director: Bruce Robinson
“I demand to have some booze!” It would be impossible to have a list of great drinking films that did not include Bruce Robinson’s cult classic Withnail & I. This is doubly true in this instance because the man who inspired the character of Withnail, the actor Vivian MacKerrell, ironically counted among his few screen credits the role of a tramp in Edna, the Inebriate Woman.
Starring Richard E. Grant and Paul McGann as two out-of-work actors living out the end of the 1960s, it’s the film that spawned an infamous drinking game and includes a scene in which Withnail (Richard E. Grant), preceded by the line quoted above, downs a can of lighter fluid with relish. But beyond the games, the reason Withnail & I has endured is because it is much more than a tick list of alcoholic consumption. It’s also an uproariously funny portrait of a youthful rejection of society and the realisation that you can’t drink yourself through life forever.
Director: Alexander Payne
Despite flirting with the idea of including Stanley Kramer’s Second World War caper The Secret of Santa Vittoria (1969) or the underseen zombie-horror The Vineyard (1989) to represent for wine, in the end, it’s difficult to look past Alexander Payne’s 2004 tragicomedy Sideways. Probably the most widely seen vino-centric film, and one that supposedly had a direct real-world effect on the downward sales of Merlot, it remains a bittersweet comedy par excellence.
Centring on two middle-aged friends travelling through southern California wine country, the film’s supple balance of tones – perfumed with top notes of comedy and tragedy, with a lingering humane finish – is primarily represented in the character of the depressed teacher and wine aficionado, Miles. Memorably incarnated by Paul Giamatti, he’s an oenophile disposed to preening pontification, whose passion is intended to deflect from his drinking problem and mid-life dissatisfaction.
Casino Royale (2006)
Director: Martin Campbell
It might only come in second place in a quantitative assessment of the most booze-soaked Bond films (a rare victory for the much-maligned Quantum of Solace (2008) in this particular competition), but Daniel Craig’s first outing as 007, Casino Royale, has plenty of fine alcohol game. From the oft-mentioned “do I look like I give a damn?” where Bond stroppily refuses his signature line when asked if he’d like his Martini shaken or stirred, to being spiked with poison via a poker table cocktail, the film is rife with pivotal moments revolving around a drink.
One standout scene is the downing of a liberal glass of whisky to settle jangling nerves after a brutal fight sequence. But the key reason for Casino Royale making this list has to be Bond’s invention of the iconic ‘Vesper’ Martini and its subsequent appearance in cocktail bars up and down the land.
Woman on the Beach (2006)
Director: Hong Sang-soo
There are several motifs that regularly appear in the work of beloved South Korean filmmaker Hong Sang-soo. These include scenes in which characters get increasingly drunk, often sat around a dinner table strewn with bottles and soju glasses, and let their guard down – leading to emotional confrontations and revelations.
In Hong’s 2006 film Woman on the Beach, the romances and rifts are all born of scenes like this. In the first half, a tentative relationship is disrupted when Jung-rae (Kim Seung-woo) seduces Mun-suk (Go Hyun-Jung) away from her supposed boyfriend. The flow of booze emboldens their flirtation, with honest conversations and criticisms shifting the dynamics between the trio, before a drunken liaison in a hotel room. Later, when Mun-suk learns that Jung-rae is secretly seeing someone else, the two women end up in a restaurant together, bonding and reconciling with the help of liberal libations.
The Angels’ Share (2012)
Director: Ken Loach
Although the contexts are entirely different, The Angels’ Share operates on a similar assumption to Another Round in that alcohol serves as a potential catalyst to shake the protagonist out of the doldrums. In Ken Loach’s comedy drama, it’s the monetary value of super expensive whisky that offers Robbie (Paul Brannigan) a chance to reshape his destiny from petty criminal to a job in a whisky distillery. The title refers to the amount of whisky that evaporates during the manufacturing process and in a similar way, perhaps, to how Robbie hopes to leave behind his life in Glasgow.
It’s the whisky trade that provides the milieu for the finale’s heist narrative, but there’s plenty to sip along the way – including a memorable moment in which a jug full of dregs previously spat out by tasters is unwittingly necked, and the iconic sight of stolen whisky being smuggled in Irn-Bru bottles.
Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets (2020)
Directors: Bill Ross IV and Turner Ross
There have been numerous notable documentaries concerning alcohol – like the wine swindle of Sour Grapes (2016) or Les Blank’s portrait of the polka scene, In Heaven There Is No Beer (1984) – but the Ross brothers’ Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets comfortably out-boozes the competition.
It’s a ‘constructed’ documentary – the setting is staged but the action is unscripted and genuine – in which a group of barflies lament the closing of their favourite Las Vegas watering hole and raise several glasses in its honour. The customers who wander in and out of the bar throughout the day, and their sadness at the loss of their local, are all real, save for one professional actor secreted among them. What’s most endearing about the film is its comfortable familiarity, from the gin-addled flirting to the 1am philosophy. “I pride myself,” says one patron, “on only having become an alcoholic after I became a failure.”