Mike Leigh, alongside Alan Clarke and Ken Loach, is one of the veritable titans of social realism in British cinema, peeling back the layers of our cultural pretensions and showing life on the silver spoon-free fringes for what it really is. From the television plays Hard Labour, Abigail’s Party and Meantime right through to High Hopes and Secrets & Lies, Leigh both deftly satirises and viciously attacks class barriers, expectations placed upon women, the mechanisation of the working class and employs a general skewering of the type of deluded, bullshit jingoism that is arrantly bandied about by the red-top tabloids and buffoons like Boris Johnson. His quest for truth and intuitive eschewing of easy, patronising nonsense cements him as one of the most remarkable creators to have ever emerged from the UK film industry.
Naked, a darkly humorous drama that stands as Leigh’s magnum opus, is a mesmerising cornucopia of themes ranging from disenfranchisement, rampant misogyny, extreme ennui and philosophical nihilism that coalesce into a unique picture about life, both on the edge and in a cosmic sense.
We first see Johnny (David Thewlis), a 27-year-old Mancunian layabout, as he engages in rough sex with a woman down an alleyway. What appears to have started as a vigorous tryst soon turns violent, Johnny’s playmate visibly distressed and wrestling away from his grasp. Panicked by her threats of retribution from family members, he grabs a satchel of belongings from his abode before stealing a car and high-tailing it down the motorway. He is headed for Dalston, a district of East London.
It transpires that Johnny is seeking out his old girlfriend Louise (Lesley Sharp), a fellow Manchester denizen who absconded down South some years ago and now shares a house with Sophie (Katrin Cartlidge), a rather dippy and unconventional young woman who shares Johnny’s aversion to employment, and Sandra (Claire Skinner), a nurse currently holidaying in Zimbabwe. It is quickly made apparent as to why Louise isn’t ecstatic about Johnny’s reappearance and why he is an isolated soul in general. Extremely intelligent and equipped with an impressive vocabulary, Johnny appears to operate in a perpetual state of mania, his incessant maundering veering unpredictably (and disturbingly) between witty self-effacement, passive-aggressive banter and rage-filled metaphysical outbursts. Despite this, he retains a bizarre magnetism that draws Sophie’s amorous attentions.
Soon growing bored and hostile whilst lounging around Louise’s home, Johnny takes off into the night for a wander around Central London. Crossing paths with several other disaffected souls, he takes the opportunity to loudly pontificate about his views on existence, religion and history, peppering the diatribes with intensely convicted conspiracy theories. As Johnny plays the part of waspish intellectual bully-cum-twisted guardian angel to the city’s outcasts, his journey is juxtaposed with the life of Jeremy (Greg Crutwell), a sexually sadistic, psychopathic yuppie who delights in tormenting women and is smugly disdainful of anybody below him on the social strata. As the spotlight is shined on various dimensions of life that Johnny’s encounters represent, the dimorphic tale of these two men, who are similar in ways that neither would readily admit, heads for a powerful denouement.
Thewlis was rightfully catapulted from obscurity to ubiquitous reverence upon Naked‘s release, authentically inhabiting one of the most complex characters to have ever graced the big screen. Watching Johnny never stops feeling like a counterintuitive experience because, even though it’s fascinating to be privy to the observations, deductions and pushy philosophising of this erudite ne’er-do-well, he is nothing short of exasperating. Possessing a thoroughly nasty edge, Johnny weaponises his ruminations and eloquence in an attempt to make everyone he converses with feel like a misguided idiot, the potential for a calm dialectic being utterly scuppered in favour of a browbeating sneer.
He’s incredibly bright and is virtually never stuck for a rebuttal, but it’s clear that his intent is mean-spirited domination as opposed to edification. This is occasionally contrasted with a side that lends credence to the notion that Johnny is afflicted with bipolar disorder or something similar, the cessation of his aggressive and rapidly versed wit revealing deeply cynical depression and self-hatred. He is a deep thinker who despises life, and the film is a maddeningly convincing exercise in projection where he nevertheless makes some compelling if doom-laden arguments.
The film must also be commended for being one of the most valuable treatises on the effects of Margaret Thatcher’s premiership. The London of Naked is a shitty-looking, morose sprawl where nobody seems to care about themselves, let alone each other, although Johnny’s extended back-and-forth with the character Brian is a wonderfully written examination of optimism vs. nihilism that I shan’t spoil here. The Iron Lady famously said that there is ”no such thing as society”, and the effects of her ruthless advocacy for neoliberal plundering and abject selfishness are appropriately manifested in the film’s lack of human warmth and happiness that was precipitated by her cutthroat anti-communitarianism. Johnny is pathologically selfish in many respects, but he ultimately hates himself and other people because neither he nor they can truly improve anything on a grand scale. This is wonderfully balanced with the narrative of Jeremy, the only character in the film who appears halfway content and is the archetypal Thatcher’s child.
Conspicuously wealthy, spiteful, self-loving and violently misogynistic, Jeremy is a toxically masculine arch-capitalist who says ”Life is for enjoying” to an escort that he casually condescends to. He and Johnny share a troublingly contemptuous attitude toward women, although Jeremy displays no internal conflict or complexity. It could be said that Johnny represents the disappointed idealist-turned-bitter misanthrope whose latent convictions about humanity were essentially proven correct by Thatcherite policy, and that Jeremy, similarly to Albert Spica in The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover, is a uniformly callous and rapacious husk determined to fill his boots, utilising the economic and social pathologies of then-Britain at his disposal.
When all is said and done, Johnny paradoxically wishes to both help and hurt his fellow human being because he cares about how far we have fallen, although he’d never say so outright, and is unable to healthily reconcile this despondency. Jeremy is just irredeemably nasty, and he’s certainly not the one-dimensional cartoon character that some viewers have complained about. Consistently feed someone a diet of entitlement, luxury and a disinclination to empathy, and this is exactly the sort of person you end up with. Thatcher knew that, but money is money, so who gives a shit?
Shot in a crisp, bleak high-contrast style by cinematographer Dick Pope and adorned with an anxious, finely-stringed score courtesy of Andrew Dickson, Naked is equal parts hopeless, disturbing, funny and touching. Leigh changed the face of cinema with this visionary screed that retains its power to necessarily provoke thoughts and anxieties, forgoing simple answers and neat little bows in favour of a strong and disquieting complexity that will rest in the viewer’s mind long after the credits have rolled, as it should do. If you’re unfamiliar and down for tough experiences, this one is a singular touchstone to challenge yourself with.