Mike Leigh’s Naked is the centrepiece of retrospectives of his work playing in the UK at the moment: we look back at arguably his most divisive film.

Spoilers for the film Naked lie ahead.

“A film like this isn’t meant to be followed by whatever’s going to happen next. You’re supposed to go off with all kinds of mixed feelings, and confront yourselves with the rest of your lives. Therefore, I’m sorry for the following conversation.”

So said Naked director Mike Leigh after a screening of the film at Manchester’s HOME cinema on Friday 12th November. Those who have seen Naked will understand just what he means. Anyone yet to experience the movie, take Leigh’s words as fair warning.

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The director’s controversial 1993 film is the centrepiece of a major BFI Southbank retrospective on Mike Leigh running throughout November. During this time, selected films are also playing at HOME.

Naked is centred around David Thewlis’ motormouthed misanthrope Johnny. After fleeing a beating in Manchester, he experiences a long, dark couple of nights of the soul exploring a particularly threatening London. Crashing at the flat of ex-girlfriend Louise (Lesley Sharp), he seduces her emo-space-cadet flat mate Sophie (Katrin Cartlidge). But soon, Johnny has fled into London’s West End, where he encounters the quietly and not-so-quietly desperate souls broken by “life in the big shitty.” These include a pre-Trainspotting Ewen Bremner as Scottish runaway Archie, and Peter Wright as Brian, a security guard whose job is to protect an empty building. Brian fantasises about a woman he sees dancing in a window across from his building, prompting Johnny to pay the woman (Deborah Maclaren) a visit.

Meanwhile, Louise’s landlord Jeremy (Greg Cruttwell), a violent, misogynistic city boy, who back in 1993 most readily called to mind Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho, comes calling when only Sophie is at home.

At first glance Naked may seem an unusual film to place front and centre in a Mike Leigh retrospective. Certainly, upon release it met with international acclaim. Thewlis’ performance as the tortured, vitriolic Johnny terrified the Cannes jury into awarding him Best Actor, while Leigh picked up Best Director. But, for audiences who knew the filmmaker from the likes of Life is Sweet, High Hopes or Abigail’s Party, Naked took all the suggested darkness in those films and made it the entire story. Along with this shocking change of tone, accusations of misogyny were hurled against what Leigh had created.

But there is a leavening, fantastical aspect to the film as Johnny journeys through a London out of Hieronymus Bosch. Not for nothing is Homer’s The Odyssey directly quoted in one scene. Plus, the razor-wit elicits many LOLs… while occasionally leaving blood on the floor.

For a film this contradictory then, it is handy not to just have my thoughts, but Leigh’s comments from that Q&A, plus input from Andy Willis, curator of the Mike Leigh season at HOME and Professor of Film Studies at the University of Salford.

Willis explains that making Naked the season tentpole goes some way to reframing audiences’ (often sight-unseen) expectations of Leigh’s work. “He is often pigeonholed rather simplistically as a social realist filmmaker. Having the opportunity to look across his work, particularly at more comedic pieces, you get a much richer Mike Leigh than the depress-fests some often claim them to be. The films that have that reputation often aren’t that. For the films that do have downbeat settings or backdrops, there’s often a rich vein of humour.”

As an 18-year-old student, Naked knocked me off my feet with its fury, intelligence, caustic wit, and David Thewlis’ ferocious star-making turn. As someone, ahem, much older, would Johnny now be shrill where once he was blistering? Would Naked’s terrifying energy now resemble male self-pity?

Mike Leigh's Naked

For a film this capricious, the answer is predictably yes… and no. Naked has retained its power to disturb, infuriate and beguile. Moments of sublime compassion knock against shocking brutality. The pessimism sometimes seems earned, but elsewhere smells of chic bleak posturing.

In the early 1990s, “problematic” was a term seldom heard. Almost three decades on, this seems like the film for which the word was invented. Jeremy rapes two women, and is unmistakably a villainous piece of well-groomed male rage. Johnny’s taste for rough sex is what will have audiences squirming at exactly how much consent is occurring during his surprisingly frequent couplings.

His reason for escaping Manchester is due to a back alley encounter that turns into sexual assault. When visiting the woman in the window, he seems oblivious to her private pain when attempting to move on her.

Equal in those he showers with rapid-fire insults and bile, elements of Thewlis’ performance suggest his character is suffering PTSD from an unnamed trauma. But women unquestionably bear the brunt of Johnny’s cruelty as much as Jeremy’s.

Not that Leigh characterises his lead character as woman hating. For the director, “Johnny is complex, and some of his male behaviour is questionable to say the least. But, he’s not a misogynist, whereas Jeremy, absolutely he is a bastard. As much as anything else I created Jeremy in order to offset Johnny, and to create a perspective there, so we are looking at someone who really is a destructive character.”

Rather than writing a traditional script, Leigh famously collaborates with actors during lengthy improvisation and rehearsal sessions to create characters and story. He stresses the importance of this when viewing Naked.

“You have to understand that the collaboration of these very intelligent and sophisticated character actors is key. Nobody allowed their character to do something their character wouldn’t do. When Johnny goes to the older woman he sees from the office building, we were very meticulous and careful with that exploration. Her loneliness, her needs and vulnerability, and her background all played into what the actress Deborah Maclaren brought to it with great courage and honesty. In some ways it was difficult for her, but she had no qualms about it because she knew it was the right exploration.

“So, is the film the working out of an idea of violence? It isn’t. The violence is an organic function of the characters. On the basis that people behave in all sorts of ways in private, and are vulnerable or susceptible to their own impulses in different situations.”

Audiences will form their own opinions about this aspect of Naked. In many ways it is exhilarating to watch a film this fearlessly adult in its treatment of difficult subject matter. When asked if he noticed differences between audience reaction today and back in 1993, Leigh said, “It’s a good question, but it’s very difficult to answer. I don’t know that I can log that actual difference. So any answers I give I’d just be making up.”

What cannot be disputed is the quality of the women’s performances. The desperate Sophie reminds us again how tragic it was that Katrin Cartlidge died so young. Lesley Sharp proves herself the film’s MVP. Denied the verbal fireworks given to Thewlis, her Louise is nonetheless most fascinating. Tough but compassionate, wounded yet willing to see the good in people, she is both heartbreaking and the film’s one stroke of cautious optimism.

While Johnny displays flashes of compassion that humanise him, we are never asked to pity him. Andy Willis says his reaction to the character was the biggest difference between viewing the film at time of release and now. “Watching it again as someone who’s nearly 60, I found I’ve got less time for his pontificating and smart-arsery than I had back in 1993. Interestingly, while I found him a problematic character, originally I didn’t find him as mean spirited. Now I think Johnny’s nastily exploitative in a way I didn’t read when I was younger.”

In a way, my own opinion reflects Willis’ view. But, rewatching Naked for the first time in over 20 years, I was surprised at how much Thewlis’ creation still captivated me. In large part due to the actor’s astonishing performance, Johnny’s self-loathing and general loathing articulated with verve, smarts, and genuine humour. “You taking the piss?” Ewen Bremner’s runaway barks in one scene. “Yer giving it away, aren’t yer?,” Johnny fires back.

I imagined Johnny’s conspiracy theory babbling about barcodes, the Book of Revelations, and millennial apocalypse would now resemble the paranoid fantasies of Q-anoners. But, his proclivity for seeing the end of the world in human behaviour seems more relevant in this age of climate change and the lip service paid to minimising it. Leigh says Johnny, “isn’t a victim of conspiracy theoriyitis. He enjoys talking about this stuff but it’s banter and letting off steam.” For me this is at odds with Thewlis’ conviction when delivering those monologues.

With his snark and point-scoring contrariness, Johnny would definitely be blogging and podcasting nowadays, shifting political leanings if one opinion became too fashionable. Jeremy would have found fellow travellers in the misogyny and violent porn that exploded online when highspeed broadband became the norm.

Mike Leigh's Naked

Speaking of Naked’s infernal yuppie, the movie’s depiction of the obscene disparity between haves and have-nots has also risen in relevance. For Willis, “things that on first watch years ago were peripheral, now seem much more significant. Particularly the way Johnny and Archie exist on the edge of homelessness and destitution. That’s such a big issue today, it now seems much more central to the film.”

What I overlooked on first viewing is that with Naked, Mike Leigh made a horror film (and the BFI’s re-release trailer – down at the bottom of the article – certainly employs a horror movie aesthetic). Here, Hell really is other people. A predominantly nocturnal movie, even the daytime scenes are devoid of warmth, felt even more keenly in the new 4K restoration. Andrew Dickson’s score is the sound of urban alienation and would sit well in a serial killer horror. For Louise’s flat, production designer Alison Chitty found a house that had the “gothic, Charles Addams” feel Leigh wanted.

Plus, Johnny is an emotional vampire. He cannot bring himself to be close to people, but feeds off their energy, leaving most encounters invigorated while the other party is drained. Note how often the character, vampire like, waits to be invited into someone’s home or workplace.

Before we go, this is also a fine film for Before-They-Were-Famous spotting. Elizabeth Berrington makes her screen debut as Jeremy’s first victim, while Toby Jones can be spotted waiting at a burger van. The film is also a reminder of just how brilliant Gina McKee has always been, here playing a sad-faced waitress in a greasy spoon.

Naked then. Challenging, horrifying, beautiful, objectionable, funny, exciting and exhausting. When was the last time you saw anything like that at the cinema?

With thanks to Andy Willis and HOME, Manchester. Naked is also released to buy on Blu-ray on November 29th.

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