With a newly remastered Naked premiering at this year’s BFI London Film Festival ahead of its nationwide re-release in November, audiences will once again be exposed to the corrosive power of Mike Leigh’s 1993 drama. A scabrous and unflinching portrait of alienated lives, misanthropy and masculinity in crisis, Naked is driven by the eloquent, intellectual but dangerously damaged mind of its central character, Johnny (David Thewlis).
As an insight into the new post-Thatcher underclass, Naked spewed forth a morally bleak and emotionally nihilistic vision of a fractured society, with Thewlis’s performance as the disaffected and self-destructive Johnny proving so magnetically repulsive that he walked away with the best actor award at the Cannes Film Festival. Leigh himself was back in Cannes three years later winning the Palme d’Or for Secrets & Lies, the only UK film to do so that decade.
What of British cinema in the rest of the 1990s, though? Alongside huge breakout hits like Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994), Trainspotting (1996) and Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998), the UK’s cinematic output found many interesting ways to reflect the changes happening at societal and political levels. New voices emerged alongside the old guard as Britpop dominated the airwaves and seemed to give British cinema a confidence boost in the process. The under-noticed breakthroughs of films such as Margaret Tait’s Blue Black Permanent (1992), the first feature directed by a Scottish woman, and Ngozi Onwurah’s Welcome II the Terrordome (1995), the first British feature directed by a Black woman, can now be seen as the landmarks that they were.
Just as the cultural landscape shifted, so did the films. Here are 10 of the most remarkable.
Naked has been remastered in 4K digital by the BFI National Archive and will screen at the 65th BFI London Film Festival.
Our autumn celebration of Mike Leigh includes film seasons at BFI Southbank and HOME Manchester, a UK-wide re-release of Naked and selected titles screening online on BFI Player.
The Long Day Closes (1992)
Director: Terence Davies
With its formal control, evocative use of music and foregrounding of mood and emotion over linear plot, Terence Davies’ autobiographical film The Long Day Closes is exhibit one in making the case for the Liverpudlian director and screenwriter as one of the greatest living British filmmakers. Time, memory and a deep feeling for cinematic language are the building blocks in Davies’ recreation and recollections of childhood and cinemagoing in post-war Britain. This is not a film of actions and consequences but of sensations, sounds and expressionistic visual stylings.
With tracking shots, dissolves and overlaid snippets of film dialogue, The Long Day Closes forms a mosaic evoking loneliness, familial love and childhood fantasies, which are deeply personal yet rich in interpretive qualities. An immersive companion piece to his earlier Distant Voices Still Lives (1988) in its exploration of his own family life, The Long Day Closes saw Davies at the height of his creative powers, creating emotive sculptures on film.
The Crying Game (1992)
Director: Neil Jordan
A massive success both at the box office and at awards ceremonies, The Crying Game gave new impetus to Neil Jordan’s filmmaking career after the trio of critical and commercial failures that followed his 1986 neo-noir Mona Lisa. Popular with film studies tutors due to themes of race, sexuality, national identity and political violence, The Crying Game initially struggled for financial backing, but Jordan’s belief in his own screenplay was warranted – it won him an Oscar.
A thriller and a love story, Jordan’s film sees IRA enforcer Fergus (Stephen Rea) form a bond with kidnapped British soldier, Jody (Forest Whitaker), which changes the trajectory of Fergus’s already deviated life. On seeking out Jody’s lover, Dil (Jaye Davidson), in the wake of the soldier’s death, Fergus is inexorably drawn into a romantic relationship he would once have balked at. The narrative’s now famous twist adds fascinating layers to Jordan’s striking return to form.
Director: Sally Potter
Witty, playful and daring, this loose take on Virginia Woolf’s 1928 novel Orlando: A Biography is a feast for the eyes and the intellect alike. A classic feminist text, Woolf’s novel found the perfect combination of director and actor in Sally Potter and Tilda Swinton, the latter taking on the lead role of the ageless English nobleman who lives for centuries and morphs from a man into a woman during a period of masculine crisis.
Making her second feature as director, following 1983’s The Gold Diggers, Potter brings Woolf’s text and characters to joyful life on screen, with Swinton’s androgynous style pushing at the boundaries of gender and sexuality. Incorporating voice-over narration, inter-titles and fourth-wall breaking addresses to camera, Orlando is formally bold but assured. With an eye-catching supporting cast including Quentin Crisp, Jimmy Somerville and Simon Russell Beale, it proved a pivotal moment in Potter’s and Swinton’s respective careers.
Bhaji on the Beach (1993)
Director: Gurinder Chadha
Written by Meera Syal, and inspired by her childhood trips to Blackpool, Bhaji on the Beach centres on an intergenerational group of women of Indian descent and their various experiences while on a day trip to the seaside resort from Birmingham. It was an early flexing of muscles for director Gurinder Chadha, who would hit the big time with Bend It like Beckham in 2002. By placing female characters of South Asian heritage at the heart of the narrative, Syal and Chadha gave voice to stories and viewpoints that were hitherto marginalised on and off screens in Britain.
A comedy-drama with themes taking in single parenthood, teenage pregnancy and racial prejudice, as well as the generational and cultural divides between the women, Bhaji on the Beach upends the idea of the traditional British seaside holiday, as these friends and family members examine their respective places in modern Britain against the expectations of cultural tradition.
The Remains of the Day (1993)
Director: James Ivory
A beautifully presented period piece with exquisitely judged performances, the Merchant-Ivory adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Booker Prize-winning novel The Remains of the Day deservedly garnered eight Academy Award nominations. Adapted for the screen by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, this tale of repressed emotions, misguided loyalties and lost opportunities is a deeply thoughtful, engrossing experience.
With a never-better Anthony Hopkins in the lead role as butler of Darlington Hall, Mr James Stevens, and Emma Thompson as the estate’s housekeeper Miss Kenton, The Remains of the Day presents a highly affecting, unacted-upon love story. Unable or unwilling to break free of his repressed emotional state, Stevens chooses his work and loyalty to Lord Darlington (James Fox) over Miss Kenton, even when his employer’s Nazi-appeasing sympathies test his moral values.
Director: Danny Boyle
Choose life. You’d be hard pressed to find anyone of a certain age from the UK who didn’t know what those words alluded to. That’s testament to the impact on the public consciousness of Irvine Welsh’s 1993 novel Trainspotting and Danny Boyle’s sensational big-screen adaptation. Although Boyle had an instant impact with his debut feature, Shallow Grave (1994), it was this kinetic, anarchic, blackest of comedy-dramas that really propelled his directing career.
“Colonised by wankers” and entrenched in the Scottish underclass, Renton (Ewan McGregor), Spud (Ewen Bremner) and Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller) inhabit a world of heroin addiction, petty crime and casual sex on the margins of society. There’s also violence to contend with, most of which involves Robert Carlyle’s hard-drinking psychopath, Begbie. The film’s era-defining soundtrack featuring Iggy Pop, Underworld and Blur was another key component that saw Trainspotting take £48 million against its tight £1.5 million budget.
Brassed Off (1996)
Director: Mark Herman
Named the poorest village in Britain in 1994, the South Yorkshire mining community of Grimethorpe provided the inspiration for Mark Herman’s aptly named Brassed Off. Featuring a soundtrack recorded by Grimethorpe’s colliery band and centred on the struggles faced by the fictional Grimley band in the wake of the decimation of the mining industry, the film’s title neatly plays on the colloquialism for being angry.
Brassed Off is wryly funny and desperately poignant in equal measure, featuring a heartfelt performance by the late Pete Postlethwaite as the band’s proud conductor, Danny Ormondroyd. Although themes of familial and mental breakdown, poverty and the destructive tensions between progress and tradition sound bleak notes, it’s all offset by the emotional warmth of the screenplay. It’s through the sparky and spiky rekindled romance between returning local girl Gloria (Tara Fitzgerald) and Ewan McGregor’s tenor horn player, Andy Barrow, that Brassed Off finds its hope and heart.
Nil by Mouth (1997)
Director: Gary Oldman
One of the finest British actors ever to grace our screens, Gary Oldman has, to date, only once stepped into the director’s chair for a feature film. Also responsible for its screenplay, Oldman delivered a raw portrayal of a highly dysfunctional family torn apart by alcoholism, substance misuse and crime in the award-winning Nil by Mouth. As gritty and realistic as anything turned out by Alan Clarke or Ken Loach, Oldman’s screenplay drew from his own time growing up on a council estate in south-east London.
Although Oldman’s film is ostensibly dominated by Ray Winstone’s violent family patriarch, Raymond, Nil by Mouth’s major acting award went to Kathy Burke as Val, Raymond’s beaten-down wife. Burke won the best actress award at Cannes for her heartbreaking portrayal of a woman subjected to horrific domestic and psychological abuse but who tries to maintain her dignity and some form of cohesive family unit under the very worst of circumstances.
Director: Lynne Ramsay
Rich in visual symbolism, confidently directed and with moments of stark realism and surrealism, Ratcatcher announced the arrival of a major new talent in British filmmaking. Coming from a photographic background and with a number of short films under her belt, Scottish writer-director Lynne Ramsay brought a keen eye, emotional depth and a poetic sensibility to this 1970s-set drama, which plays out amid the poverty-stricken housing schemes of Glasgow during the rubbish collection strikes of the period.
Seen through the eyes of 12-year-old James Gillespie (William Eadie), Ramsay’s downbeat debut is a meditative recreation of a moment in time, informed and leavened by its young protagonist’s imagination. Ratcatcher was selected for the Un Certain Regard section at Cannes, and went on to win her prizes at festivals in London, Edinburgh, Chicago and at the BAFTAs.
East Is East (1999)
Director: Damien O’Donnell
Another 1970s-set period piece, Damien O’Donnell’s hilarious debut feature, East Is East, was adapted for the screen by Ayub Khan-Din from his own autobiographical stage play. Set in Salford, Greater Manchester, and coursing through with comic clashes of western and eastern culture, it revolves around the mixed-ethnicity Khan family, presided over by Pakistani-Muslim Zahir ‘George’ Khan (Om Puri) and his British, Catholic wife, Ella (Linda Bassett).
Between running that most British of institutions – a fish and chip shop – and trying to instil the values and traditions of his homeland in his increasingly rebellious, British-born and raised children, Zahir/George finds himself at the heart of a whole host of familial tensions and conflicts. A vibrant and evocative representation of another time that still had plenty of relevance to the Britain of 1999 (and for today), East Is East won the BAFTA for best British film and proved a sizeable hit just as the decade was drawing to a close.