Thursday 18 November 2021

Mean streets: "Naked"

The BFI's current Mike Leigh retrospective has come at an opportune time. From a historical vantage, it's been fifty years since Leigh's first theatrical release, 1971's terse, does-what-it-says-on-the-tin character study Bleak Moments. (To mark the occasion, the BFI are reissuing that film on DVD and Blu-Ray at the end of the month.) Yet it also follows three years on from Leigh's last feature, 2018's Peterloo, that historical epic that was clearly meant as a career-defining highpoint, but opened to such shrugging responses (at least here in the UK) as to seem like a minor setback. That long-gestating passion project gave into the dourness that has occasionally crept into Leigh's output; what we need now is a reminder of the spontaneity of this director's very best work. Naked, the season's flagship reissue, felt genuinely incendiary back in 1993: it found the filmmaker who'd previously signed off on such jolly comedies as 1988's High Hopes and 1990's Life is Sweet turning in an 18-rated state-of-the-nation address-slash-barely suppressed howl of despair. A year earlier, the Conservative Party had enjoyed its fourth consecutive election victory under new leader John Major; Leigh's adopted home of London was in the process of being hollowed out and converted into a playground for the rich, forcing ever more people onto the streets. Ken Loach's early 90s highpoint Raining Stones - charting Thatcherism's aftereffects on the working-class folk of Manchester - 
had opened a month before, but where Loach was trading in his signature social realism, Leigh was moving into openly expressionistic territory. Naked remains a jolting watch in 2021 - and one reason it's so jolting is how closely it corresponds to the present moment. Its relentlessness is very 21st century; it's a rare British film that refuses to hold anything back.

This is a flinty and abrasive film from the outset. Leigh introduces his protagonist, pent-up agent of chaos Johnny (David Thewlis), as he carries out a sexual assault on the cobbled backstreets of Manchester, then watches as he flees to North London in a stolen car to avoid the consequences. The extraordinary feat of the film (and the Leigh technique) is that it makes this shabby, deeply compromised figure not good company, exactly, but a compelling watch: a livewire update of all those angry young men who once stomped through the British cinema. Johnny can be a funny bastard - sly, sarky, snarky - and it helps that everybody else on screen is more disaffected (Lesley Sharp as the ex-girlfriend he crashes with upon arrival in the capital), more addled (the late Katrin Cartlidge as the flatmate he seduces, manhandles and discards), more loathsome (Greg Crutwell as a Thatcherite wideboy called Jeremy, seen tearing into chicken legs and female flesh with the same gusto) or spiralling into an even greater madness. The bleakest gag in the movie is that the character introduced as "Sandra the nurse" and played by Claire Skinner - the one person all these characters sorely need to see - doesn't appear until the two-hour mark, by which point everybody's wounded almost beyond repair. By the early 1990s, Leigh had established himself as a satirist of cosy bourgeois values; yet Naked sank its teeth into the city's underbelly, doubling down on the decay and misery. It's crucial to the overall effect that Johnny should arrive in London in late autumn, meaning there's not a leaf on the trees and barely a lick of colour in most of these frames. Costume designer Lindy Hemming sticks everybody in funeral shrouds; the second half, after the girls kick Johnny out, sticks its nose in Soho's scummier ends, noting in passing that the peep shows were still plying a flourishing trade. This Britain looks shagged out, dead on its feet, at its wits' end; the apocalypse is nigh even before Johnny goes off on one about the upcoming millennium. Try watching it with the knowledge Four Weddings & A Funeral was to open within eight months: it's a film from another universe entirely.

In retrospect, it's clear that every now and again Leigh gets fed up of making nice within an industry that expects even its festival regulars and major players to fulfil certain obligations with a doffed cap. (That may be why he followed up 1999's Gilbert-and-Sullivan biopic Topsy-Turvy, one of his greatest achievements, with 2002's splenetic All or Nothing.) There is a lot of misery here, and the sexual violence in the dialogue alone would be bracing enough: Johnny and Jeremy present as devilish parallels, men who think nothing of taking what they want from the women around them before fucking off into the night. (Leigh's point might well have been that the working-class have been schooled by the rapacious rich in doing whatever they like, with scant regard for the consequences. It's what a decade of Tory rule gets you.) Yet even at his most splenetic, Leigh continues to talk a good game - and knows how to get his characters talking a good game. There haven't been that many British films with this sure a feel for streetlife: the young Ewen Bremner is authentically terrifying as a transient with Tourette's who responds to Johnny's hundred-words-a-minute patter with a stream of "eh?"s and "fuckin' shite"s. We were only three years away from Trainspotting, of course - but that film was carried to London by Danny Boyle's optimism that things were changing, and the country was turning a corner. When Johnny chats up Gina McKee in a greasy spoon, devout cinephiles may be reminded of Michael Winterbottom's 1999 drama Wonderland, but that London was full of possibilities that seem a long way off here. The second bleakest gag in Naked, coming at a point where its anti-hero seems to be comprehensively losing it, is to have Johnny fall in with a bloke whose job involves updating flyposters for Therapy? gigs with the banner "CANCELLED". Naked proceeds with a deep-seated pessimism in its veins and an outright nihilism in its gaze, perhaps because it spots the impossibility of lasting positive change within a country that insists everything be done a certain way, and that its citizens remain in their rightful place. You'd be Mike Leigh grumpy if you'd seen how little things had really progressed in Britain over the past half-century.

Naked is now playing in selected cinemas; a new Blu-Ray edition is released on November 29. The BFI's Mike Leigh retrospective continues until the end of the month - details here.

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