NAKED is unique amongst the films I have or will be picking for this list, in that I once spent an evening with its director, Mike Leigh. At the time I ran the university film foundation (NB. “foundation”, not “society”. This is important for some reason) and Leigh was invited to town as a guest speaker. I was worried I knew relatively little about him, he already had an extensive filmography and at the time I think I had only seen three or four of his films, but the assignment was to meet him at the station then on to a nearby fancy restaurant, and has anyone ever known a student turn down a free dinner?
It turned out to be an enjoyable evening. ALL OR NOTHING (2002) was about to be released and he seemed enthusiastic to talk about it; we chatted about Timothy Spall and a then-unknown young actor who had impressed him called James Corden. I have always been fascinated by his method of film-making: while there is absolutely no improvisation on camera the situations and dialogue are built up over many months of improvisation and research by Leigh and his cast. Each actor knows only as much about each scene as their character would be aware of diegetically, the director alone is aware of the complete narrative. His famous irascibility did turn on one unfortunate member of our party that night who kept confusing him with Ken Loach which prompted the comment “Do your research before Milos Forman comes next month, he won’t put up with this kind of shit.” As a result of the meeting, I sought out more of Leigh’s back catalogue. This is when I discovered NAKED.
NAKED is more overtly cinematic than Leigh’s previous work, and an investigation of much darker terrain. It begins with a handheld tracking shot snooping down a dark Manchester back alley and straight away two things set the tone. Firstly there’s the muted palette: cinematographer Dick Pope used a process called bleached bypass where development of the film stock is halted shortly before normal completion. There are no bright primary colours, everything is either dark or seems to take place during a washed-out perpetual dawn. And secondly there’s the fact that the story opens with a rape committed by our protagonist, Johnny. NAKED has received criticism, especially in Britain, around the portrayal of its female characters and the violence exhibited towards them. I think the film certainly has a lot to say about the relationship between violence and power, but I don’t think that makes it misogynistic per se. Hold that thought.
David Thewlis gives such a superlative performance in the central role of Johnny that it seems to have had the unfortunate consequence of pulling down his subsequent career under its gravity. He is a unique and terrible creation, a savagely erudite anti-hero who rails at the hypocrisy and apathy he sees around him. When Johnny is forced to flee Manchester he arrives unannounced at the London flat of ex-girlfriend Louise (Lesley Sharp).
Louise: So what happened, were you bored in Manchester?
Johnny: Was I bored? No, I wasn’t fuckin’ bored. I’m never bored. 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 it’s new as long as it flashes and fuckin’ bleeps in forty fuckin’ different colours. So whatever else you can say about me, I’m not fuckin’ bored.
He seduces her drugged-up flatmate Sophie (Katrin Cartlidge) and then rejects her just because he can, beginning a cycle of attraction and repulsion that plays out across the film. Then he leaves to tramp the streets of London, dispensing his apocalyptic prophecies to the homeless poor and the night-shift workers of the capital. What Leigh puts on screen is an almost anarchic vision of Britain in the early nineties, a violent state where people sleep rough while cavernous office buildings in the Square Mile lie empty, a brutal place that demonises single mothers and the unemployed. At one point Johnny follows around a bill poster whose job it is to stick ‘CANCELLED’ notices over adverts for rival events all over London. This is the flipside of the Thatcherite coin with its promise of small government and market freedom: what if there’s nowhere to go? I was prompted to dig NAKED out again recently after Tony Benn passed away and a quote of his that was doing the rounds reminded me strongly of the film’s extraordinary second act:
I do not share the general view that market forces are the basis of political liberty. Every time I see a person in a cardboard box in London I say ‘that person is a victim of market forces’. Every time I see a pensioner who can’t manage – a victim of market forces. The sick who are waiting for medical treatment they could accelerate by private insurance – they are the victims of market forces.
This hints at why I find the charges of misogyny hard to accept; in the end it is the female characters who refuse to accept this victim status more than the male. Louise and Sophie form a bond that enables them to fight back against their psychotic yuppie landlord (Greg Cruttwell channelling Patrick Bateman). It’s notable that the only characters in the film with “proper” jobs are Louise and her third housemate Sandra. The male characters without exception are either unemployed and penniless, parasitic rentiers, or Brian the night-watchman, who is guarding a building full of “space” and therefore has, as Johnny describes it, “the most tedious fuckin’ job in England“. The film seems to me deeply critical of the way men use their masculinity as a shield against their predicament in a pathetic attempt to make themselves feel powerful.
To this day I’m still torn between kicking myself that I missed the chance to quiz Mike Leigh about his film, and being faintly relieved that I didn’t have to broach any of the uncomfortable arguments it raises over cheese and biscuits.