Flourishing to life in the early 1970s, Mike Leigh has always been a filmmaker passionately preoccupied with the lives of others. In his noble quest to decipher the everyday existence of Great Britain’s bread and butter population, he has taken us on intimate explorations of the morals and purposes of living, dying, relationships, family, class and pretentiousness in a society that is becoming ever-more isolated.
From the cold seclusion of the director’s debut picture Bleak Moments in 1971, Mike Leigh leads audiences on a voyage of England’s changing social and political landscape through the 20th century. This transition can be illustrated by the criticism of the Thatcher years in 1983’s Meantime to the promotion of the socialist spirit of 1988’s High Hopes, until such is typified by Naked in 1993, a prophetic film with a damning opinion of the future.
Fueled by the barking energy of Johnny (David Thewlis), Naked reflects a bleak depiction of ‘90s London, following the homeless character from his hasty departure from Manchester to the thrills of the capital city. Visiting his Mancunian friend in Dalston, Johnny arrives unannounced and proceeds to throw his weight around and impose his conspiracy theories about the state of the world and the degradation of society.
Leaving the house seemingly due to his own boredom, Johnny proceeds to stomp the streets of London with little purpose other than to enlist the company of others so that he can spout his observational philosophy. Johnny is less cynical, and more perceptively critical, exposing the dark heart of an emerging technological revolution by opening the eyes of those around him to obvious shortcomings. Mike Leigh also does this in the characterisation of the despicable Jeremy (Greg Cruttwell), a contrary figure to Johnny who seems to abide by the status quo aside from his wildly misogynistic actions and comments.
As if the ghost of the century’s future, Johnny stalks the streets of London, interacting with everyone he can as he laments the modern world. “That’s the trouble with everybody – you’re all so bored…now you want cheap thrills and, like, plenty of them, and it doesn’t matter how tawdry or vacuous they are as long as they’re new” he cries, placing himself as the ‘other’ in his own conversation, assessing his disciples.
In combination with Dick Pope’s cinematography and Mike Leigh’s deft ability to craft gripping conversation, an air of apocalyptic London is composed, where Johnny drifts like the grim reaper across persistently cold streets and dank underpasses. Optimism is drained away from the bustling city as London is captured under shadowy grey skies and its inhabitants are picked apart by Johnny’s scathing rants.
One of the few moments of optimism is provided by Brian (Peter Wight), a security guard in charge of taking care of a vast, empty office space who meets Johnny sitting outside on the street curb. Curious about such a pointless job, Johnny is invited inside the building where he explores the beige void whilst lecturing the man about the futility of living in the future. The man, once spritely, leaves the conversation deflated, accused of living in fantasy by a ranting protagonist, announcing, “Nobody has a future. The party’s over. Take a look around you man, it’s all breaking up”.
At the dawn of ‘Cool Britannia’, a time of optimism and celebration for an emerging distinct British culture in the mid-1990s, Naked broke the artifice and suggested such growth was a mere illusion. Strange how prophetic Mike Leigh’s late 20th-century classic truly was, foreseeing the downfall of cultural ideals as the country transitioned into a new technological era of personal cell phones and vacuous social media. Further still, one wonders what Johnny would make of the fragmented isolation of the contemporary country following its breakup from the European Union.
Naked may be over 25 years old, but its eerie apocalyptic musings remain as haunting and as relevant as ever.