Film Review: Naked by Mike Leigh
Naked is by English writer and director Mike Leigh. A frequent collaborator with the BBC, Leigh’s work commonly deals with dark, comedic undertones. His creations include the 2008 film Happy-Go-Lucky and recently a 2014 biographical film entitled Mr Turner centred on the life of artist J. M. W. Turner. He has been dubbed by some the Yasujirō Ozu of Britain. Although despite this large catalogue of arguably more successful films, it is claimed by critics that this film, Naked, is Leigh’s finest piece of cinema.
Set in London, Manchester born and bred Johnny – a loudmouth, opinionated, conspiracy-theory obsessed, marmite-type character – finds himself travelling to the capital by car one night following an ugly sexual encounter with a woman. The film starts with a continuous steady shot - comparable to old train camera sequences - as Johnny travels to the home of one of his former friends – Louise, also a Mancunian – for solstice. The film immediately threw me into a psychogeographic vibe – as it already felt spontaneous and unscheduled. After further sexual events with Louise’s flatmate, Johnny embarks on an unplanned pilgrimage around London. Johnny – played enigmatically by latter-Harry Potter star David Thewlis – comes across various people throughout the city, splurging his ideals and opinions upon them. Many of those he meets are discontent with their daily lives within the hustle and bustle of London, turning to addictions, sexual pleasures, or voyeurism to break the monotony. He meets security guards, lost Glaswegian individuals and café workers all by chance, and follows them around their ongoing city experiences. Praying on the weaknesses of these city dwellers, Thewlis’ character is akin to the night walkers and flâneurs of the past – he is a walking lost soul of a man whose brain is full of opinions that he must share with people whether they want to hear it or not. He is a true personification of releasing and holding information – despite a lot of it appearing as false conspiracies – a feature of utterly understanding space and place.
Johnny lets himself be taken on random excursions throughout the film. He has no reason to follow a Glaswegian native as he looks for his lost girlfriend, nor does he have to stick with the security guard for so long, but he is compelled to do so. I get the sense throughout that – akin to Poe’s The Man of The Crowd, Leigh has portrayed this character as a man who dreads being alone. Homelessness and houselessness are two themes that I have looked at during my reading, and they are both apparent throughout the film. Not only does Johnny characterise these features of psychogeographic pieces of writing, but if I needed any more compulsion to believe that Johnny is an imitation of these literary figures, he then “people watches” in tube station entrances. Another key feature of this style of persona. “I have infinite number of places to go, the problem is where you stay”, Johnny utters at one point. I feel throughout that he is a person who roams and needs to feel a sense of belonging.
The film contains a parallel story of another man – the landlord of the women’s flat. This fellow is vastly different to Johnny - he represents a richer, sleazier side of London and one that Johnny despises. It is clear to see – although possibly not intentional – a Marxist thinking influencing Johnny throughout, as he hates the bourgeoisie and the monotony of day to day work, once referring to Louise’s career as a “posh job in the big city”. To the landlord, London is a haven, to Johnny it is desolate – he hates modern culture and what it represents. Very Guy Debordian and extremely Situationist.
Released in 1993, Leigh’s film gives a rough-edged view into 90s city culture – specifically that of night-time. Comparable to the gritty tales of fellow 90s films Trainspotting and Shallow Grave – Naked brings forth a darker side to city life. No glorified landmarks are shown – aside from one brief glimpse of the BT Tower as Johnny arrives in the city and most of the architecture is portrayed as ugly, brutal, and bleak. Yet the film holds a beauty within it, as at one-point Johnny talks about the “guts of London” - the truer side of the city. The modernist building the security guard shields, alongside Louise’s flat, is a key example of this depiction – the man even admits he is simply guarding “empty space”. The audience are only shown “nicer” examples of places through the perspective of the despicable landlord, viewing fancy restaurants instead of the underbelly of the city. This is fascinating after reading Night Walking by Matthew Beaumont, a book that opened my mind to a new understanding of those who walk at night. Like most films, especially comedy dramas, the film mostly takes place after hours – Johnny spends nights trying to find somewhere to sleep – and after my education by Beaumont’s work, it is clear to see why many films throw their main character(s) into these settings. Night-time creates a whole different vibe and brings forth creatures of the night into the adventures of our protagonists. Although what keeps Naked apart from latter films as say Superbad or Booksmart – where main characters are in search of a party or a romantic interest – its character is only in search of belonging, but it is not clear if he knows this or not.
When I went into watching Naked – after it was suggested to me as a psychogeography film – I was not anticipating what was to follow. A quick glance of the synopsis before watching gave me a brief idea, but it was a different experience than what I expected. It is not at all acquainted with other pieces of psychogeographic film and I imagine it is not intending to be one, but I absolutely believe it is one. Our main character travels about in the same vain as Poe’s or Dicken’s or De Quincey’s, or even Teju Cole’s in my recently reviewed Open City. Leigh also heavily leans on “randomness” throughout – apart from the coincidence of the landlord and Johnny being connected – but aside from this, Johnny is completely susceptible to the night-time of the city taking him on a journey. There is one final factor that gives me no doubt that this is a piece of psychogeography – Johnny arrives by car, but at no point does he use it after he arrives in the city – choosing simply to experience it by foot.