Tom Jolliffe takes a look back at Mike Leigh’s 1993 film, Naked…
The other day I attended a special screening at The Prince Charles Cinema in London. It was part of a specially curated selection of films (from NFTS) devoted to the vile and unlikeable. The first film of the series was Mike Leigh’s 1993 masterpiece, Naked. Leigh was there himself to introduce the film. It was a passing gesture more than anything, as I always feel of the self-effacing Leigh, that blowing one’s own trumpet isn’t his bag.
He did make mention of the film, in an odd way being a pre-cursor to a string of millennium themed films that would begin to populate cinemas leading up to the turn of the century. There is certainly a degree of fatalism running throughout the film, not least in the central character Johnny, who among other things is near obsessed with the notion of impending apocalypse.
However I’ll take things back just a second. If you’ve never seen Naked, or are unfamiliar with Leigh’s work, then he tends to specialise in “kitchen sink” drama. He digs to the core, whether bitter, funny, sad, angry, or tragic to the reality of whatever situation he is bringing to screen. Reality is often grim but his speciality would probably be in seeing those characters who take on the drudgery of life with a weary grin and quick-witted line. The modus operandi of Leigh is also to approach every film without a script. His films aren’t particularly story focused. There’s not too much in the way of elaborate plotting. It’s always character orientated. We go on the journey within a particular slice of life with them. As such he works closely with his actors in rehearsing and developing the characters. It’s an improvisational process, which in itself can often be difficult, however Leigh, and those cast he chooses in each film, have mastered it. What comes from the process is naturalistic and something that feels off the cuff rather than passing from writer (pillar) to director (post).
Where Naked differs, is in how dark Leigh gets. The story centres on Johnny (David Thewlis) who flees Manchester to avoid a beating and heads south to find his ex-girlfriend Louise (Lesley Sharp). It seems initially an irrationally excessive and reactionary step to take but as the film progresses we realise this is a man who runs instinctively. His mind is never still. As a character, as its curated selection suggests, Johnny is vile. Manic depressive, obsessive, without empathy and resigned to the pointlessness of an existence that will end before he hits 40. All the while he suffers acute neuralgia which affects him physically. His mind runs at 110mph, in part to counteract the intense physical pain. However he spews his stream of consciousness on a regular basis to exercise his intellect and need for permanent (and new) engagement.
When he arrives in London for example, he meets Sophie (Karin Cartlidge) a room-mate of Louise. It’s not long before Johnny gives in to a carnal impulse with Sophie (who is instantly infatuated with him). The trouble arises afterwards when she is clearly attached. Suddenly he’s staying in a shared flat with his ex, and has obtained a new girlfriend. The attachment quickly frustrates him. He can feel consistency and routine gnawing at his brain. One night he escapes into the London night and it is here where things become almost other worldly.
From the lighting (warm, natural amber glows and shop-lit neons) to the strange encounters with a mix of outsiders and oddballs, this takes things to the border of fantasy. Probably as close as Leigh has ever gone. It’s still dark, searing and fierce but these scenes in particular are what makes the film stand out. These are the ones which largely populate the highlight reels you’d see on YouTube, whether it’s Johnny engaging with a Scottish couple (the male brilliantly played by Ewen Bremner) or engaging in philosophical, intellectual debate with a night security guard. The guard represents the person who Johnny feels closest in match on an intellectual level. With everyone else it’s brief one-sided tirades about fatalism. However the guard has an answer for every theory Johnny spews. In the end though, as always, Johnny burns that candle and must move on.
Another interesting aspect about the film is the duality between Johnny and the other central male character, Jeremy (Greg Cruttwell). In many ways they have a similarity. They need to exercise their physical impulses. They resort to violence. However whilst Johnny’s resignation to inevitable doom leaves him devoid of inspiration (seeking only passing engagements as and when the itch strikes), Jeremy isn’t so much resigned by fate but determined and decisive on it. He’s living life to the fullest, in the worst possible sense. He engages in every sordid, excessive desire he pleases and because he’s so financially well endowed he relishes exercising his power over women who fall at his feet (because he’s got money). He is going to burn out rather than fade away, fully intent on ending his life when he hits 40. He’s driven by a fear of ageing. If there’s a certain degree of sympathy gathered from Johnny due to his physical ailments and clearly traumatic upbringing, then Jeremy represents the purest form of repugnance. He’s irredeemable in every aspect. He’s there to offer that counter to Johnny. He allows us to offer a little more sympathy to our protagonist, if nothing more, because he’s the ultimate bastard. As reprehensible as Johnny can be, he has moments of humility. They may come and pass quickly when he deems them a moment passed, but at least he attempts them.
One criticism which might be aimed at Naked is the depiction of women in the film. In every case they are subservient and pathetic toward the men. This wouldn’t pass the Bechdel test that’s for sure. This is Leigh’s point though. He’s not portraying these women as every kind of woman and he’s certainly portrayed strong-willed and fascinating women in his other films. However the film is ultimately about the vile and pathetic (in different facets). There’s only one female character who doesn’t play the game. Who doesn’t give into the nonsense of the males, and that is Sandra (Claire Skinner) who spends the majority of the film away on holiday, arriving back to her home to find a shambles. Whilst she can’t finish a sentence, she won’t stand for nonsense, nor succumb to the “charms” of the two males. Ultimately this film isn’t a horrid depiction of women. It’s a horrid depiction of everyone. If this were a film about the inherently good, the un-flawed, it wouldn’t be nearly as engaging.
Another interesting aspect of the film is the music by Andrew Dickson. It picks and chooses the moments it envelopes the film. It’s a rhythmic and circular score which builds in layers as it progresses in each scene. The string heavy music also effectively mirrors that sharpness that invades Johnny’s head (both physically and mentally). In combination with Dick Pope’s wonderfully yin/yang cinematography which balances the grim greys of London, with injections of ambient, other worldly colours of the night, the film looks and sounds fantastic. Certainly seeing this on the big screen offered a new experience for me, having only watch it previously at home.
For those who haven’t seen the film, yet want to engage their brains in something compelling, disturbing and challenging, then Naked is certainly recommended. What you will find aside from the aforementioned, is a performance that is truly unique and utterly electrifying from David Thewlis. The rest of the cast are excellent but Thewlis is a tour-de-force, holding court in a unique film about a truly unique character. Whilst it certainly wasn’t exactly charming Sunday afternoon fare, it was an engrossing experience watching this on the big screen. That said, even on the small screen this is gripping. A film completely unlike anything else you will have seen, whether you like it or not.