PRINT January 1994


In Mike Leigh’s films people don’t just talk, they stutter and struggle—against class, repression, hopelessness, the mother country, the King’s English. Arguably the most important director working in the U.K. today, Leigh has also been one of his country’s least bankable auteurs, turning out over a dozen features and a handful of shorts since 1971 that for the most part have been seen only on television. His new film, Naked, should scrape away at the director’s anonymity, not simply because it picked up awards for best director and best actor (for lead David Thewlis) at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, but because Leigh has left behind the superficially gentle whimsies of his last two films, High Hopes, 1988, and Life Is Sweet, 1990, and, entered the lower depths.

An anti-epic—retrofitted to the consciousness of an antihero raging into the close of a century, the end of the millennium—Naked tracks the exploits of a 27-year-old Manchester man, Johnny, who’s first seen raping a woman in a dark alley. As the hand-held camera rushes toward the pair, the woman breaks free, and disappears from the film. Johnny does not. Running from the scene, he steals a car, drives to London, and storms the apartment of his exgirlfriend, Louise (Lesley Sharp). What follows over the next 48 hours is a series of bitter, and often bitterly funny, interactions with Louise, her roommate Sophie (Katrin Cartlidge), as well as a handful of other strays of one sort or another, less citizens than refugees of their strangely unrecognizable, depopulated metropolis.

Leigh, in love with language in a way that few screenwriters and fewer directors are, describes Johnny’s voice as “an idiosyncratic vernacular, [with] an articulate use of sophisticated English and an idiosyncratic use of sophisticated English as well.” Rhetorical flourishes, figures of speech, idiomatic oddities—Leigh is a cinematic grammarian whose ear is always tuned to the insinuations of inflection and syntax, whether the speaker is the yuppie in High Hopes who hurries her elderly working-class neighbor along with a revealing “Chop-chop” or the pair of backpacking Caucasian healthniks in Nuts in May, 1976, who disdain the “killer whites” (sugar, flour), even as they reproduce the very systems of oppression they’re trying to leave behind.

Johnny aside, most Leigh creations exist “in a world where people are not really articulate.” This lack of verbal acuity is a function less of social position (Leigh’s middle- and upper-class characters are often incomprehensible) than of a breakdown in communication, a breakdown that’s contingent on, though not restricted to, class and its miseries. In the beautifully modulated High Hopes, Cyril (Philip Davis) and Shirley (Ruth Sheen), a couple of working-class bohemians, tough it out in Thatcher’s England. An armchair activist, quietly recalcitrant Cyril reads Lenin for Beginners, snaps photos at Marx’s grave, and resists Shirley’s desire for a baby with rebukes that melt into the plaintive sigh, “I just want everyone to have enough to eat.”

Leigh’s follow-up, Life Is Sweet, is a comic consideration of what happens once the babies arrive—and when one truly has too much to eat. The seething center of this family romance is Nicola (Jane Horrocks), a twitchy teenage twin who furtively crams candy down her throat only to vomit it up again. Like Johnny, Nicola’s a verbal terrorist, a word bulimic who alternately spews out fascist, sexist, capitalist at her nearest and not-so-very-dearest and retreats into solipsistic silence. But while Nicola can barely take a step outside, Johnny can barely stay indoors. Fiercely talkative to the point of logorrhea, he runs at the mouth as he moves through the dark streets and dim rooms of London. As with so many of Leigh’s most memorable characters, his words are shield and weapon both, an armature that locks him into solitude, ontological and otherwise. For belligerent talkers like Johnny and Nicola, language has all but collapsed on itself. No longer ties that bind, their words have become private, insular—stark rejoinders to a world in which language has become increasingly specialized, professionalized, balkanized.

The motivation to talk it out is something I certainly empathize with. It’s born of a frustration with things, a need to get the ideas out, and also to confront things. It’s complex about [Johnny]. I don’t think it would have been a bad thing if he had gone to university. The point is, Is it a waste? The truth is because he’s an outsider, because he doesn’t know anything to do, he has time to read and to think, and it’s all there wanting to get itself out.
—Mike Leigh

In his splendid study The Country and the City, the English cultural critic Raymond Williams describes a “new kind of lonely walking” in the poetry and prose of late-19th-century English literature. In James Thomson’s poem “The Doom of a City,” 1857, a solitary figure wanders a metropolis in which “flaring streets each night affront the patient skies/With a holocaust of woes, sins, lusts and blasphemies.” In a later work the urban landscape becomes one “of Night, but not of Sleep,” one in which “thought and consciousness . . . never ceases.” For Williams, “the city is not only, in this vision, a form of modern life; it is the physical embodiment of a decisive modern consciousness.”1

The apotheosis of this new urban consciousness emerges in James Joyce’s Ulysses, where the connective tissue that binds the novel’s three principals—and, indeed, the city itself—is language. A “family but not a family [is] out of touch and searching for each other through a myth and a history. The history is not in this city but in the loss of a city, the loss of relationships. The only knowable community is in the need, the desire, of the racing and separated forms of consciousness. Yet what must also be said, as we see this new structure, is that the most deeply known human community is language itself.” It is this “community of speech,” Williams argues, that makes Ulysses great, a judgment reverberating with all the optimism that he—a Marxist, and a willing laborer on the land—could bring to bear on his subject in 1973.2 In Naked, made some 20 years later, that “knowable community” has become sorrowfully atomized, the “community of speech” near incoherent.

The important shift from Thomson’s lonely walker to Joyce’s Leopold Bloom, writes Williams, lies in the way “there is no longer a city, there is only a man walking through it.” In Ulysses there is a perceptual blur between Bloom and the world “out there,” a kind of phenomenal rush of thoughts, sounds, smells, visions—inner and outer. Unlike Thomson’s lonely walker, Bloom is not tucked safely on one side or another of the divide between consciousness and reality. Along with that of Molly and Stephen Dedalus, Bloom’s voice maps the city, shaping its contours in a way that plays havoc with a tradition of insulated subjectivity.

With Johnny, Naked would at first seem to return to the lonely walker, except for a crucial fact: the landscape itself has radically shifted, and with it, perforce, the consciousness that travels that landscape. Just as the late-19th-century European city had a specific social topography—industrial, capitalist—so too does the late-20th-century model. The problem, of course, is how to chart a landscape in which the old truths no longer apply. One obvious solution is to return to a carefully tailored past; it’s no accident that lately Hollywood’s favorite British imports are period dramas (what the industry dubs “frock pieces”), movies in which caste is rarely challenged and the old days are eternally good.

And then there’s Naked. A far remove from the city of the tourist board or the Merchant/Ivory romance, the London streets in Naked display none of the familiar signposts. Unlike Joyce’s Dublin, with its accretions of history and words, this London is barren—an anonymous, desolate, at times even frightening place, alternately expressive and blank. For Thomson’s walker the city was similarly bleak, but held out as well the possibility of a commonality in despair, what Williams terms “an unprecedented human closeness.” In Naked, that possibility for union exists but is refused. Johnny will flirt with commonality, with community, but remains stubbornly trapped in alienated, apolitical self-consciousness. If, as Williams contends, Ulysses is an epic in desire, Naked is one man’s odyssey of despair. Johnny thinks the city’s confusion of tongues is silent, but he isn’t listening.

Leigh isn’t pushing his camera into the muck for fun; there is no glee, no escape into irony in this dark adventure. Johnny’s travels in and out of shelter, in and out of the arms of women, in and out of the company of others, is a journey of the dispossessed, the “uprooted if not rootless,” as Leigh puts it. “I’ve investigated family units a lot,” Leigh says, “and felt the need to look at the world of dislodged people outside the home. Also, [I] felt it was time in some way to try and put into a film some kind of expression of one’s fears for the world, for where we’re going, what we’ve done, and all of that.” In Naked those fears are temporarily rerouted into metaphysical rants. Johnny’s longing to bail out of the here-and-now by way of the occult, the mystical, the irrational, makes for spectacular drama (and comedy), but is a feint nonetheless. If the vacuum of meaning that’s sucking the purpose out of Johnny were once upon a time filled by god, king, and country (or, once upon another time, with working-class consciousness), what remains? At first, Leigh’s answer seems to be language. The problem is that language necessarily implies human connection, discourse—something Johnny furiously rejects.

Intimations of a similar void surface in earlier Leigh films—in a suburban gourmet restaurant called the Regret Rien in Life Is Sweet, in a nouveau riche imitation of Sloane Ranger style in High Hopes—but they never constitute the totalizing vision of Naked. What makes Johnny all the more shocking is that he’s so against type; unlike the angry young men of the early-’60s British New Wave, and of not a few Leigh films, Johnny is a working-class character without a working-class context: he doesn’t have a job, which means he doesn’t have work, the linchpin of identity for socialism and communism both.

Work can mean misery in Leigh’s films, a fact made flesh in the aching back of the postman in Hard Labour, 1973, as well as in the gnarled hands of the victimized housewife who rubs that back. In High Hopes, Cyril struggles along on a courier’s paycheck, socialist dreams, and love. Work here is often more tedious than strenuous, numbing the mind as much as the body, but it is never incidental or wholly oppressive. Leigh has said of his first feature, Bleak Moments, 1971, “All the people in it are trapped and all their problems are firmly rooted in their social conditions. I think it’s interesting that they have no economic problems, not serious ones, anyway; yet they’re all absolutely lumbered.”3 Post-Thatcher, Leigh has shifted his verdict: “I suppose I would now, and a long time since then, tend to say, to realize, that it’s got to be a socioeconomic situation.”

To that end, work remains an even greater riddle in Naked than in any other of Leigh’s films. Punching a clock or not, no one is having a good time: Louise is a harried secretary, Sophie’s on the dole, Sandra (Claire Skinner) is a neurotic nurse, Johnny’s jobless. Still, when Johnny pokes fun at Louise’s assumed career aspirations, he misses his mark. Louise knows full well the limits of work, but she also knows that labor, like love, holds at the very minimum the promise of a connective if not continuous life—in relation, in discourse, in the world. This promise is most forcefully realized in the figure of the night watchman Brian (Peter Wright), the one character who seems to have found a strange peace with his job—in part because he’s actively trying to elude the coordinates of time and space. (Talk about alienation!) In Brian’s eccentric cosmology and in Leigh’s mean streets, there is little room for a labor metaphysic, only traces of hope.

One of the most common criticisms of my work is that people say it is patronizing toward working-class characters: you show working-class characters and yet they’re funny. Now of course, that criticism never comes from anybody from a working-class background! It always comes from middle-class people who have an ivory-tower view of it. And in some remote way, their own remote guilt about it makes them say that.

Frequently criticized for his depiction of the working-class, Leigh has taken some nasty hits for Naked, most notably in the British film magazine Sight and Sound. The latest sour charges (about sex, not class) echo a stock academic-left position popularized by the Maoist film group Dziga-Vertov and its most famous member, Jean-Luc Godard: “The problem is not to make political films but to make films politically.” In other words, the truly political film doesn’t merely dismantle realist conventions in order to expose (usually Hollywood’s) ideological imperative, it brings the audience in on the operation.

For Leigh, who describes himself as “nonaligned left,” or “left of left of center,” the issue of political filmmaking is more than a matter of deploying well-worn reflexive strategies:

What I feel strongly is to confront an audience and share with an audience and to ask questions, but necessarily . . . not to come up with answers. I think there is a danger in being prescriptive. It’s terribly important for me that you walk away from Naked, or any of my films, with a lot of unanswered questions, to go away and do the work. That, so far as I’m concerned, is part of the process of politics, of humanity coping with its systems and organizations and ways of surviving.

Leigh’s films, with their familiar narrative strategies and their less familiar narratives, speak to their audiences in ways the Dziga-Vertov group couldn’t begin to imagine. The stammering, sputtering, choking, giggling, joking, taunting, teasing, tender tongues of Leigh’s assorted characters are the strongest (and loudest) evidence of an ultimate optimism in human relations.

I have ongoing preoccupations which on the whole boil down to living and dying, and being a parent, and being a kid, and being in families, and working and surviving and all of those things, sex and love and hate. My preoccupations are with the human struggle, with people just coping with each other.

In Naked, that “coping” is most fully expressed in the realm of sexual politics. “Look,” says Leigh, “we’re in a postfeminist time. The assumption [is] that we’re liberated and all the rest of it. My point is that this is a myth. Men still do behave in an oppressive way and women still do allow things to happen.” Leigh clearly has no use for the mainstream-feminist or, for that matter, the squishy-liberal line on representation, both of which tend to dictate that good political images are so-called positive images. Just as he’s never trafficked in class romance, Leigh doesn’t shy away from difficult women (notably in Abigail’s Party, 1977), even if he is vague in Naked as to why “women still do allow things to happen.” (On the other hand, Hard Labour, one of his grimmest pictures, could serve as a cinematic companion to Engels’ The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State.)

Leigh may think Johnny a comprehensible “receptacle of cares and worries and preoccupations” about the late 20th century, but he’s an unstable receptacle nevertheless. Leigh drops clues as to why Johnny is off-balance (in the repeated references to his mother, for one) but never spins effects into causes. That’s one reason why the character of Jeremy (Greg Cruttwell)—Johnny’s wealthy, chortling analogue, a rapist/stockbroker who barks French into his cellular phone—exists in the first place. (Leigh considers Jeremy “irredeemably worse” than Johnny.) Successful or not, Leigh’s unexceptional class one-upmanship is essentially as much a dodge as Johnny’s riff on 666, the European bar code, and prophecy.

Indeed, the not-so-secret heart of Naked is the loose community of women Johnny enters and exits. His encounters with the various women in their various rooms—his curious spatial choreography—is the most poignant instance of the film’s controlling image of exodus and deliverance. That the women can scarcely keep up with his wild discursive flights is finally beside the point; after all, what’s the point of all that fast talk when Johnny himself can’t listen? The crucial exception to this tongue-tied company is Louise, the lone woman who speaks Johnny’s language and the one, in turn, to whom he listens. Leigh puts it another way: “Finally, there is love.”

Johnny’s incursions in and out of the women’s rooms and through the streets of London are neither existential larks nor instances of sexual-space-as-destiny, but rather a pained and painful refusal of, and departure from, the only knowable community that might have welcomed him. Brian’s warning—“Don’t waste your life”—and Louise’s counsel fall on deaf ears. Johnny talks but he doesn’t hear; his words belong to a voice outside discourse, hermetically swaddled in false presence. In Naked, individual consciousness takes a beating, and the lonely walker, no longer cloaked in a mantle of seductive, romantic, tragic isolation, is finally and inexorably stripped bare.

Manohla Dargis lives in New York.


1. Raymond Williams, The Country and the City, 1973, paperback ed. Oxford: at the University Press, 1975, p. 239.

2. Ibid., p. 245.

3. Mike Leigh, quoted in Nina Hibbin, “Leigh’s Blood Transfusion for British Cinema,” The Morning Star, 21 February 1972, p. 104.