Passionately preoccupied with the lives of others, the everyday existence of the Great British bread and butter population to be precise, filmmaker Mike Leigh has long held a deft ability to access a profound truth to the human condition. Be it Poppy’s flawed optimism in Happy-Go-Lucky, the fractured familial dynamic of Life is Sweet, or indeed the complicated persona of Johnny in Naked, God’s lonely, embittered man, Mike Leigh explores the everyday folk of modern Britain with meticulous excavation.
Naked, celebrating a 4K re-release in cinemas this November, is certainly the filmmaker’s most complex and enigmatic piece of work, casting a net over 1990s London to try and capture the mood, excitement and fear of a place and time at the dawn of the new millennium. Having seen Naked as a young, ambitious, pre-pubescent cinephile, it was indeed a film that had surfed embarrassingly far over my head for several years, living as a dormant riddle soon to be unlocked.
With the midday sun barely piercing through the grey shroud of the Mancunian sky and light rain creating a fine mist, there was truly no better day to meet the master of British cinema, Mike Leigh, an individual who has long pioneered national cinema since the release of Bleak Moments in 1971. Fleeting and compact, watching Leigh’s debut Bleak Moments is to watch a microcosm of the filmmaker’s career, featuring fractured characters kept apart by their lack of ability or want to communicate.
Meeting Mike Leigh in the surreal space of an empty theatre stage at Manchester’s HOME cinema, we discussed the marvellous restoration of Bleak Moments on its 50th anniversary. Looking back on the film like one recalls a first love, Leigh retains that he and his rag-tag team of collaborators “should be proud of ourselves”, he says with genuine sincerity, before adding: “People really get it and it holds, we were all young when we made it, I was 28 I think, and we made it for peanuts”.
Reeking of the same ambition and experimentation as any rebellious debut feature project, Leigh’s film shows a snapshot of 1970s Britain in the wake of the swinging ‘60s, demonstrating another side of the coin to the growth of the late 20th century. The film’s lowly protagonist Sylvia (Anne Raitt) made way for Meantime’s disenfranchised Colin (Tim Roth) and Coxy (Gary Oldman) in 1983, as the characters of Mike Leigh increasingly reflected the spirit of the contemporary generation marred by Margaret Thatcher’s tenure as Prime Minister.
Such bitterness erupts in the character of Johnny in 1993s Naked, an individual that emerged as “a sort of accumulation of ideas and feelings about stuff” as Mike Leigh recalls. Elaborating, he explains: “One known Johnny’s, I wanted to probe somewhat into unacceptable aspects of male behaviour but to do that, it was important in the representation of Johnny to have the landlord character”.
Quite possibly the most abhorrent character ever to grace the silver screen, the landlord Jeremy, played by Greg Cruttwell, works in contrast to the protagonist, presenting a mirror image to Johnny’s own questionable behaviour. “He really is a misogynist and he is a bastard. Whereas Johnny isn’t, you know, it’s much more complex with what’s happening with Johnny,” Leigh exclaims, clarifying Johnny’s meaning as a character relies on the terror of the landlord.
“Nobody has a future. The party’s over. Take a look around you man, it’s all breaking up,” Johnny rants in my favourite scene of Naked, as David Thewlis’ character marches through an empty office block and states his damning view of the world. Dissecting the character of Johnny warts and all, this scene is also a favourite of Leigh’s who explains that the scene’s length came as a result of extensive improvisation.
Together with Peter Wight as security guard Brian, he and Thewlis walked through the office block constructing the scene whilst Mike Leigh watched from afar. “So I was sitting in the dark, knowing that they were going to come up around the building, the way security guards do,” he tells me. “First of all the lights came on through the window behind us, then they came in and in order to turn the lights on in this room, the switch was on the other end. So they were silhouetted against the wall, and at that moment he started improvising, and I thought, fuck, this is amazing. So cinematic,” he explained.
Discussing his pessimism of the imminent future, the scene is a moment that allows Leigh to express the trepidation of “that thing that was eight years away on the horizon, the millennium”. Quoting Johnny in the scene, Leigh states: “We’re moving into that period, soon we’ll have laser tattoos on our hands,” with Naked certainly seeming like a dooming apocalyptic prophecy of a millennium-to-come.
In an increasingly-isolated contemporary Britain where Brexit has fractured the dynamic of social order, Leigh assets “we know what he’d [Johnny] think about it,” before bringing up the character of Poppy in Happy-Go-Lucky as a considered comparison. “Look at Sally Hawkins’ character alongside Johnny, although they are on the face of it very different and they are still, I think they are kind of as it were, siblings, in the sense that they’re both idealists. The difference is he’s a frustrated embittered idealist and she’s an idealist who ploughs through optimistically”.
Bridging the gap between the fears of the new millennium in the 1990s and the optimism of such technological growth in contemporary Britain, this comparison works to neatly demonstrate both societal views since the turn of the century. Much has changed since the world of Mike Leigh’s Naked, with the director having helmed nine projects since, including the Palme d’Or-winning Secrets & Lies, 2002s All or Nothing, and most recently, the historical drama Peterloo.
“Now, there are a lot of British films that get made,” the director states. “As to how many what I would call serious British films, as opposed to trivial British films made us another debate. But then, of course, now we have a whole new thing, which is Netflix and etc. and all that,” he adds, in discussing the modern landscape of cinema. Now, cinema is made by new criteria, “constructed, predicated on the premise of a clear notion of what people want,” as the director notes, before bafflingly revealing, “I’ve just been turned down by Netflix…They can’t hack it because they need to know that boxes will be ticked based on algorithms about what people want, which is all bullshit”.
As the filmmaker rightly points out, “Naked would never get made on those criteria. No way”.
Leigh is reassuring, however, and confident for the future of modern cinema, noting: “So what I’ve seen lately and liked has been stuff from overseas. Quo Vadis, Aida? Fucking good film,” he excitedly announces. Also celebrating the likes of Shiva Baby and the recent The Tragedy of Macbeth, the filmmaker remains passionately optimistic about the future, acting in contrast to the damning opinion of a pre-Millenium Johnny in Naked.
Whilst the films of Mike Leigh may often explore the bleak moments of life’s repetitive nature, they also shine a light on how such moments come to define life itself, with even his most gloomy films ending with a glimmering flourish. A pioneer of British filmmaking, the director is a creative, free-spirited optimist, even if the likes of Johnny may suggest otherwise. Departing from the empty theatre stage, Mike Leigh tells me, “I see a lot of films and a lot of stuff going on, especially around the world. The important thing is, you know, not to fall into the common trap of thinking that what a movie is, is defined by Hollywood because it isn’t”.
Mike Leigh Retrospectives continue at HOME Manchester and BFI Southbank until November 30th. The BFI’s 4K remaster of Naked is in UK cinemas now. Naked and Bleak Moments are available on BFI Blu-ray from November 29th. StudioCanal’s 4K remastered Blu-rays of All or Nothing and Vera Drake are available now.