Although I understand why he is so critically acclaimed, I’ve never been a huge fan of Mike Leigh – it’s just quite hard to stomach his brutal kitchen-sink realism and honest-but-bleak depiction of Post-Thatcherite modern culture. He doesn’t do pleasant, likeable characters; there is never a happy outcome for anybody involved in his productions – it’s just depression through and through. Real life, it may well be, but – much like Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream (which I have never been able to revisit) – Mike Leigh movies are too raw to ever be ‘enjoyed’ per se. But back when I was leaving school to study at University, as perhaps is commonplace amidst all young students, I went through that phase of semi-pretentious dissection of film works. It wasn’t cool to just like Scorsese, you had to talk about Schrader instead; films like The Last Picture Show were automatic top movies for you – even though you had no idea why; and the works of Mike Leigh may not have been enjoyable in the least bit, but they were to be praised as being amidst the greatest British films ever made. It was almost like the bleak, overly-realistic depiction automatically warranted such a view – and such praise – irrespective of the lack of any redeeming qualities. Eighteen years’ later, over a decade of which having been spent reviewing, and I no longer feel obliged to laud praise on films which have been critically acclaimed; nor to slate those which are commonly critically derided. I’m quite happy to praise Tron: Legacy for the pure audiovisual experience, or defend Sucker Punch as enjoyable, when no one else will admit to it; and I’m also happy to point out the flaws in much-loved classics like The Italian Job, or point out that there is very little good about Sofia Coppola’s latest film, Somewhere, irrespective of how many ‘golden space needles’ it has won in European Film Festivals. And, over time, I have come to truly appreciate the works of Terrence Malick – The Thin Red Line, The New World, and, now, The Tree of Life – arguably more so than any other filmmaker alive; when, even a decade ago, I found his films that much harder to warm to.
Mike Leigh’s Naked was one of my favourite films during that art-house phase that almost every film fan goes through in his late teens/early twenties. How could it not be? It was cynically cool, bitingly witty and sarcastic; peppered with unpleasant or insipid characters and with prophetic, philosophical musings, the kind of which I could imagine contemplating myself; as if a teenager debating existentialism with a bunch of similarly inebriated students wasn’t in the least bit, erm, pretentious. But so much time has passed since I last saw Naked; and the opportunity to revisit it has made me wonder whether or not there was ever any true worth to the film, or whether it was just another one of those bleak Leigh productions which, back in the day, it was ‘cool’ to love.
After a back-street affair with a married woman quickly turns to rape, modern-day nomad Johnny flees his Manchester home to go to London and visit an old girlfriend. Turning up on her doorstep, he befriends and transfixes one of her flatmates, before setting out on a voyage through the bleak London streets; where we watch his encounters with a whole assortment of colourful individuals and hear his philosophical musings on life.
“How did you get here?”
“Well, basically, there was this little dot, right? And the dot went bang and the bang expanded. Energy formed into matter, matter cooled, matter lived, the amoeba to fish, to fish to fowl, to fowl to frog, to frog to mammal, the mammal to monkey, to monkey to man, amo amas amat, quid pro quo, memento mori, ad infinitum, sprinkle on a little bit of grated cheese and leave under the grill till Doomsday.”
Eighteen years after it was first released and Mike Leigh’s Naked is still just as bleak a watch as it ever was; but it also still has a certain amount of poignancy and presence with it. It is an uncomfortable watch, for sure, but a compelling one nevertheless – driven by a powerhouse lead performance by David Thewlis, evoking reflections of everybody from Woody Allen to Marlon Brando, who brings the central character of Johnny to life as a quintessentially British modern-day anti-hero: almost impossible to like, but utterly captivating nonetheless. He cuts a swathe through the London underground, sniping away at all and sundry as if he were a verbal gladiator; sparring and striking with cutting sarcasm and a pseudo-intellectual wit which he obviously believes makes him a better man than anybody he opposes. There is no question that Thewlis is the heart and soul of this piece; the sole reason why, even after the best part of two decades, Naked still remains a strong, powerful watch. In the nineties, electronic band The Orb sampled large chunks of his dialogue from this performance – and you can see why; for me, both then and now, Johnny successfully pulled off what was previously attempted in Withnail and I (another ‘classic’ which just doesn’t sit well with me), and provided us with an almost non-stop barrage of prophetic musings on life, society, and British culture – building, brooding, often existential questions which would likely leave first-time viewers reeling and ruminating for quite some time after. In this respect, Naked is still just as strong as ever.
Unfortunately, there are many other parts of what is still my favourite Mike Leigh film (not a hard task, mind you) which cross the line in the wrong direction. It was unquestionably a daring move to portray both men and women in such bleak, extreme ways; but the patently misogynistic sensibilities are pervasive and intrusive. Almost all the men shown are twisted, perverted, sometimes-rapists, who will use and abuse anybody to get what they want; and the women are universally weak-willed, feeble, insipid and flighty. Leigh somehow manages to show his male characters – both good and bad – as being at-the-flip-of-a-switch capable of casual rape and, worse still, depicts his female characters as either being too weak to resist, or actually capitulating to it, and even encouraging it no less. The women act like they are utterly powerless to let these psychotic strangers into their lives; into their very homes; and like they are similarly at their wits end on how to subsequently deal with these abusive individuals. It’s painful to watch – and not in a “wow, that’s raw” painting-true-life-as-it-is kind of way, but more in the fact that you just get fed up with seeing these characters get walked all over. After a while, it no longer seems like a heartbroken, heartfelt look at real life, but more like a twisted Mike Leigh-view of the world where every individual is destined to bring upon themselves an unbelievable amount of pain.
“Have you ever thought, right, but you don't know, but you may have already lived the happiest day in your whole life and all you have left to look forward to is sickness and purgatory?”
Thankfully, even if the plethora of first-introduced female flatmates are not particularly easy to relate to because of all this (amidst them Leslie Sharp – recently excellent in The Shadow Line; and Leigh regular, the late Katrin Cartlidge – who is, for some inexplicable reason, regarded by every other character in this piece as ‘beautiful’), Johnny’s odyssey through the London streets brings us a selection of far more interesting individuals, who are not quite as fatally flawed. Trainspotting’s Ewen Bremner plays Archie, an aggressive Scotsman with a hilarious tic, searching the streets for “Maggie”; and Peter Wight plays a security guard who, with nothing to do other than guard an empty building, jumps at the opportunity to philosophically fence with Johnny, leading to arguably the best dialogue sequences in the entire movie. Then there’s Jeremy – and I still don’t quite get where they were going with his character – this nasty, nihilistic rapist who appears to be only in the movie in order to show the flipside to Johnny’s protagonist, and attempt to make the latter more likeable by default. It doesn’t work, but Greg Cruttwell’s portrayal of this utterly loathsome individual is still commendable.
There is, indeed, a lot to admire about Leigh’s work here – it’s just all so trussed up in an unpleasant package that you find it extremely hard to swallow (compare with Fish Tank, for example, which presents kitched-sink urban realism in a far more pleasant way which is no less real). Even the minimalistic soundtrack here – a frequently repeated, accelerated succession of semi-orchestral tones which, these days, could easily have you wondering whether your mobile phone was having a bad day – is designed not to be liked (indeed, probably quite the opposite), but is also designed to be appreciated as the perfect accompaniment for the piece. Now, sometimes this works and has the right effect, but sometimes it just gets on your nerves – and you could pretty-much apply that formula to the whole piece.
“That's the trouble with everybody – you're all so bored. You've had nature explained to you and you're bored with it, you've had the living body explained to you and you're bored with it, you've had the universe explained to you and you're bored with it, so now you want cheap thrills and, like, plenty of them, and it doesn't matter how tawdry or vacuous they are as long as it's new as long; as long as it flashes and bleeps in forty different colours. So whatever else you can say about me, I'm not bored.”
It’s often been reflected that what you are watching in Naked is actually Mike Leigh’s voice commenting on British life at the time. I know this seems like stating the obvious, given Leigh proclivity for post-Thatcherite commentary, but it was perhaps never more personal than in Naked, where Johnny literally gives voice to these stark-but-potentially-true views, and where his depiction of depressed, disillusioned and broken British culture is so brutally, unflinchingly real that you wonder whether he would have blamed the Holocaust on Thatcher too, given half the chance. And, amidst the plethora of overly pretentious rants and remarks, there’s an abundance of true-to-life statements, reflections on our culture and on our humanity which have the potential to make viewers sit up and take notice; recognise the state that they are in – or the state that someone, somewhere not far from them is in. These are bleak, broken individuals; but they are very real; and even if the Thatcher days are long gone, it all still exists around us – particularly in our current time of economic strife. Who wouldn’t be desperate to love and be loved if they hit thirty and were still single? And who wouldn’t let almost anybody in the door as a result, even if the end result was a painfully destructive, often abusive relationship – which still, remarkably, appears to be the preferred option to that of being single. The nineties may have been bleak and desperate times, but human nature hasn’t changed all that much in the last three decades.
Revisiting Mike Leigh’s Naked was both everything I’d hoped for and everything I was concerned about. His unflinching portrayal of the nauseous Nineties is still as stark and brutal as ever, and his hard-to-justify, ostensibly misogynistic depiction of nasty men abusing weak-willed, desperate women is unquestionably hard to stomach; but, somehow, thanks mostly to an amazing central performance from David Thewlis, the drama remains remarkably compelling and, at times, quite poignant and contemplative. There may be an abundance of pretentious, quintessentially art-house moments; the lead character’s social-political, and often existential, rants may go on that little bit too long, but there is still a fair amount to admire about his intriguing odyssey-like voyage through the back-streets of London. It’s just a shame that Mike Leigh’s female characters have to be so incredibly stupid – it may have been quaint or even intriguing a couple of decades back, but, on reflection, it’s just unfathomably degrading. Is this the masterpiece that I was convinced it was back when I was a teenager? No, it’s not – and I don’t even regard it as a flawed masterpiece. But it does have strokes of genius, and remains to this day my favourite Mike Leigh film by far. On that basis at least, it comes recommended.
“In the book of Revelations, on the day of judgment, wormwood will fall from the sky, it will poison a third part of all the waters and a third part of all the land and many many many people will die! Now do you know what the Russian translation for wormwood is?... Chernobyl.”