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This feature first appeared in the November 1993 issue of Sight and Sound

Naked is a film about men who hate women, and as such it is going to anger and upset a lot of audiences.

It is also a film about men who hate themselves and the world around them, a film cracking open at the seams with bile and venom and a frighteningly inexhaustible bitterness, and its power will continue to garner further accolades and acclaim after its success at Cannes. Indifference is not the response it seeks, and sexual politics will, quite rightly, be the battleground for the controversies it cannot help but instigate.

Put crudely, the question many will want to ask is whether a film that shows so many scenes of sexual violation and airs such litanies of misogynist rhetoric is, by giving them that space, endorsing those actions and views. Having seen Naked only once, perhaps it’s too soon to decide, though I did find much of it disturbing and cruel. Yet at the moment I’m inclined to insist that Naked needs serious consideration, and my reasoning for this can be boiled down to two words: Mike Leigh.

This article is not intended to be a dribbling fan letter, but neither will I pretend to be dispassionate, so I’ll permit myself one small paragraph of gush. When it comes to making moving (in both senses of the word) pictures that evoke the horrors and humours of being English over the past 20 years, Mike’s my boy.

Forget the hairy-chested, prolier-than-thou bogus heroics of Alan Bleasdale, pour Terence Davies’ ghoulish stew of Fair lsle and laboriously poignant sing-songs down the nearest drain, and for heaven’s sake don’t let clammy Dennis Potter wheel on yet another batch of therapy sessions passed off as sixth-form Brecht – only Alan Bennett and Victoria Wood come close to matching Leigh’s successes, and they too have had to look to audiences, rather than critics, for their primary recognition.

Naked (1993)

Naked should change that state of affairs – Leigh is likely to be applauded for breaking away from his reputation for small-scale, nuanced, domestic, English tragicomedies and moving on up into the rarefied arena of European art cinema – so perhaps now is the right time to try and assess exactly what he has been doing since the release of Bleak Moments in 1971.

There seems little if any doubt that he has produced a body of work that is both utterly distinctive and widely recognisable – the phrase ‘a Mike Leigh film’ immediately triggers certain images and associations. Detractors might argue that his films show not so much consistency as indistinguishability, but then there are many great artists whose reputations rest on tirelessly reworking one small patch of territory – one thinks of Monet, Barbara Pym, the Ramones – proving that smallness of scope is no barrier to magnitude of achievement.

A more contentious issue is that of Englishness. Leigh’s England is far from representative, being almost exclusively white and primarily concerned with that fractious, disputed zone where upper-working-class meets lower-middle, but nonetheless his films can only fully work for audiences conversant with the details (from brand names to ingrained structures of inhibition) of the social and cultural worlds that their characters inhabit.

Meantime (1983)

It could even be argued that there’s an unswerving Englishness to the visual look and feel of Leigh’s films, a mise en scene of man-made fibres, shot through filters of brick-dust and gravy. “Brown’s your colour, isn’t it,” one Leigh girlfriend says to her boy, and the films take the hint, wading through colour-schemes of rigorous, terrifying drabness. Beauty is irrelevant to their agenda, since what they aim to convey is a sense of familiarity, though always with that slight edge of comic excess that saves them from the banality of realism. The clothes worn in the early films are now a treasure trove of embarrassed memories, an inventory of high street horrors, conjuring up with ruthless precision the days when people wore cheesecloth without irony. This England is specific, palpable and dire, though aspects of it are at the same liable to inspire a kind of wry resignation. Whatever the response however, the codes remain, through the very intricacies of their recognisability, difficult to decipher if you haven’t grown up with them.

Few concessions, particularly with comic tone, are made to outsiders – a US friend left a screening of Life is Sweet (1990) after 20 minutes, explaining that it was just “too English”. Yet there is no jingoism present (it’s hardly the ‘English comedy’ of Jim Davidson or Bernard Manning) – if anything, Englishness is revealed as a kind of pathological condition, emotionally warping and stunting, to which the only response can be a kind of damage limitation.

What many of Leigh’s films suggest is that to be English is to be locked in a prison where politeness, gaucheness and anxiety about status form the bars across the window. He makes films about traps – Bleak Moments is an anatomy of suffocation, a slow-motion comedy of manners where people move as if underwater, while Grown-Ups (1980) sourly sketches the unbreakably repetitive cycles of heterosexuality – though sometimes there is a sliver-thin possibility of escape, as in the moments of quiet, rueful determination that end High Hopes (1988), Life is Sweet and Meantime (1983).

The most consistent aspect of his films, of course, is that whether their outcome holds out any potential for progression or not, they deploy comedy as their dominant mode – to such an extent in some cases that the unblinking sadness of their insights is frequently overlooked. The justly celebrated knockabout caricatures of Abigail’s Party (1977) shouldn’t be allowed to obscure the fact that it is also an agonising study of bullying and spite, a Barrett-starter-home version of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? where niggling and goading inexorably escalate into all-out war, leaving a final tableau as full of bodies as any Jacobean tragedy. Even Nuts in May (1976), probably the nearest thing Leigh has made to a sheer comic treat, hides a number of troubling barbs about class antagonism and the insecurities of masculinity.

Hard Labour (1973)

It’s this deft juggling of registers that gives these films their richness of texture. Only in the early Hard Labour, made in 1973, is the humour left out, resulting in a piece of almost unwatchable grimness, a joyless film about a joyless life, that follows a middle-aged woman (the incomparably put-upon Liz Smith) from drudgery at work to drudgery at home. Originally shown as a BBC Play For Today, its failure now stands as a useful indictment of that tradition of television naturalism, with its assumption that to reproduce the hardship of a particular way of life with painstaking fidelity was somehow to inspire audiences to clamour for its amelioration.

Leigh had already shown he was ahead of that game two years previously, when Bleak Moments had been careful to irrigate its picture of desperate, dried-up loneliness with enough well-observed absurdities to make the whole thing simultaneously hilarious and painfully moving. ln the brilliantly excruciating scene where Sylvia and Peter can’t quite manage to seduce each other, their hormones buckled down by the niceties of protocol. Bleak Moments strikes that note of self-recognising comic torture, prompting a head-in-the-hands wail of oh-no-that’s-me, which Leigh can pin-point better than anyone else. Hard Labour, by contrast, pickles its characters in a puritanical aspic of respectful distance, so that in the end, although you might sympathise, you don’t really care. Elsewhere, Leigh’s use of the comedy of pain breaks through that impasse, shakes up the categories and forbids easy response.

His best films (Bleak Moments, Grown-Ups, Meantime) exemplify his skills as a choreographer of awkwardnesses, a geometrician of embarrassments, able to orchestrate layers of accumulated tiny cruelties and failures of communication until they swell into a crescendo of extravagant farce. A Leigh film typically has little in the way of ‘plot’, all we tend to be offered is the sight of a few people’s already small, curtailed lives shrivelling and shrinking just that little bit more. He dishes up case studies of strangulation, though they are rarely without some glimmer of hope, often in the shape of characters who realise that the intricate webs of relationships in which they are caught could be made to work as a source of strength, that the ties that bind can also be the bonds that save. Most of all, however, it is the continual presence of comedy, often in the unlikeliest contexts, that keeps these films from being too wounding to bear. We wouldn’t want to put ourselves through the mill of their relentless perceptions if they weren’t so funny.

Abigail's Party (1977)

The humour comes partly from an acute ear for the ridiculousness of everyday conversation, the hesitancies, repetitions, misunderstandings and statements of the bloody obvious that we all constantly use to ward off our fear of silence (the influence of Pinter is clear, but shorn of the portentousness). There are also understatedly droll sight gags, such as the lanky Sue dancing with the diminutive Lawrence in Abigail’s Party, and an unfailingly shrewd use of characters’ words to expose their own limitations: “There’s no point in having a schedule if you don’t stick to it,” says Keith in Nuts in May, thereby damning himself as the most intolerable kind of anally retentive, trainspotting pedant. Those who dislike Leigh complain of a tendency towards cultural snobbery, an invitation for superior viewers to mock the inadequates on screen, and though there’s an element of this in the way we are encouraged to scoff at how in Abigail’s Party Beverly parades her penchant for Demis Roussos, there is a better, more telling follow-up joke in the fact that all her husband, Lawrence, can offer to trump it with is the hopelessly middlebrow James Galway – all types of taste are fair game, not just that for downmarket popular culture.

Leigh’s comedy works so well because it is never unmixed with other, often contradictory, emotional states and strategies. A character like Gloria in Grown-Ups is not simply a stereotype of the fussy, interfering spinster, she is also a figure of considerable sadness. The scene (perhaps the one piece of Leigh you’d want to put in a time capsule to sum up exactly what he did best) where she invades the house next door to her sister’s and refuses to budge from the staircase works not only as a slice of irresistible farce executed with a manic precision that wouldn’t disgrace the best episodes of Fawlty Towers, it cuts deeper because by such a late stage in the film we can relate this moment back to the way the careful nuances of character interplay were built up earlier.

Grown-Ups (1980)

It’s with such instances that Leigh’s method of developing his script from initial improvisation sessions (a technique which most accounts of his work fetishise to the regrettable exclusion of considering its wider meanings) pays its full and shattering dividend. Brenda Blethyn’s Gloria is pathetic and tragic and maddening and vulnerable and shameless and ludicrous and grotesque and heart-breaking all at the same time. Then again, those who regard Leigh’s work with antipathy would probably seize on such a scene as typifying what they see as his greatest crime – and label the performance, the scene, the film and the man as patronising.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard the P-word used to damn what Leigh does, as if it were a four-syllable spell to ward off his evil deeds. On the two occasions (separated by seven years) that I’ve heard him speak in public, both times he was grilled by some sections of the audience using variations on the P-theme. The fact that such questions tended to be asked in the kind of studiously street-corner, glottally challenged voices that middle-class boys only achieve after stringent de-elocution lessons and six months’ membership of their campus SWP did little to allay my suspicions that those who find Leigh patronising are only really projecting their own guilty anxieties on to the films he makes.

There is a debilitating sentimentality surrounding the cultural representation of the ‘working classes’ in this country – as if the people lumped together under that label were an endangered species, proletarian pandas in need of protection – but Leigh doesn’t toe this sanctimonious line, preferring to deliver up characters who unapologetically have tastes, manners and habits that middle-class audiences cannot help but find distressing. “Fancy going to the States and not going to Disneyland,” says a surprised Wendy in Life is Sweet when she hears her daughter’s holiday itinerary, and whether you find that patronising or accurate rather depends, I would suggest, on how many people like Wendy you meet in he course of your everyday life.

In the same way that to use the term ‘escapist’ as a put-down reveals that anyone who does so leads a comfortable life that requires no escaping from, so those who condemn Leigh for being ‘patronising’ reveal far more about their own condescending attitudes towards the kind of people who most often populate his fictions. As for me, let’s just say that a lot of Leigh’s films treat the kind of places I come from with tenderness and truth and that if I wanted to see working people have their backsides patronised off them, I’d watch Boys from the Blackstuff or Only Fools and Horses.

High Hopes (1988)

It’s also worth pointing out that the few times Leigh does succumb to facile caricature is when he wants to exercise some spleen towards the ‘upper classes’ – case in point being the impossibly callous Rupert and Laetitia in High Hopes, which is one of his weaker films, falling prey to just the kind of sentimentality about class authenticity that he avoids elsewhere. Shirley and Cyril are such snuggly bunnies of socialistic concern, all baggy jumpers and shaggy hair, that the dice are irretrievably loaded from the start, and the treatment of Cyril’s upwardly aspiring sister Valerie leaves a nasty taste in the mouth. The picture of class differences drawn is at times so glib that it almost comes across like an attempt to appease those SWP-minded hecklers who squawk so wrongheadedly about the likes of Meantime. Reassuringly, then, the most deeply-felt scene comes when Cyril chides the crassly revolutionary Suzie for her sloganeering solutions to complicated problems and confesses his own political impotence and frustrated lack of focus. All he can be sure of is the love and support he and Shirley give each other and that, in harder times, is what we have to keep us going.

ln other, more literary words, only connect – or as poor Sylvia in Bleak Moments so feelingly puts it, “if we could ever get around to touching one another, it wouldn’t be a bad thing”. The importance of mutuality, of communality, of connectedness, is the basic emotional and political wellspring of Leigh’s films. The haunting and poetic Meantime, for me the most fully achieved film he has yet made, tentatively locates a small flame of hope in the midst of high-rise unemployment and the first hard ravages of Thatcherism by validating the importance of refusal, of saying no, of the dignity of resistance. The brothers Mark and Colin forge a wary, witty alliance against both the indifferent offices of the state and the dead end embodied by the skinhead Coxy, out of his brain on Special Brew, glue and years on the dole, while their aunt Barbara, at first glance another of those prim green-belt housewives whom Leigh sometimes so disparages, finds her courage in a bottle and begins the process of telling her insufferable husband just how arid and demoralising their marriage has become.

In Life is Sweet, the film’s governing trope of food arranges the characters in terms of those able to work together and pull each other through and those like the would-be restaurateur Aubrey, whose twisted fantasy of sophisticated individualism has rendered him a sad, elaborate joke. There are instructive, amusing comparisons to be made with the other British ‘food film’ of the same moment, Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, principally in the way that while Leigh’s evocation of collective endeavour and supportive ritual reveals itself above all through the tough warmth of the ensemble acting, Greenaway treats his actors with the surgical contempt of a master butcher, draping them like so much unfortunately necessary foreground in front of his inhumanly sumptuous canvases.

Mike Leigh filming Four Days in July (1984)
© RadioTimes/Immediate Media

Leigh’s rarely-seen Four Days In July (1986) riskily transplants his favourite concerns to the tenser setting of Northern Ireland, and quietly makes its republican sympathies evident through its presentation of the Catholic/nationalist community as people for whom a specific political struggle has deep interpersonal roots. This is done, unfortunately, at the cost of caricaturing the Protestant/unionist figures in the film as one-dimensional, harsh and obsessive; even the jokes they tell are awash with blood. The sexual politics are more interesting, associating femininity with enduring communal values, and associating machismo with intransigence and inflexibility.

Tracing the dynamics of gender through Leigh’s films produces no one position, though that at least is consistent with his shunning of simplistic social verdicts. The misogyny that many will see in Naked might come as a shock after the way in which the drive, the perseverance and the fortitude celebrated in Life is Sweet so patently flowed from the character of Wendy.

ln many ways the two films are opposites – the earlier being fundamentally optimistic and benevolent (pastel-coloured and sunny after the greys, browns and almost subterranean interiors Leigh favoured in the late 70s and early 80s) while Naked is misanthropy run wild. One could fantasise that in Life is Sweet David Thewlis absorbed Jane Horrocks’ anger and disgust with the world in the chocolate spread he licked from her body, and now takes centre stage with it in Naked, where it has grown more vicious and unforgiving. Horrocks’ Nicola was redeemed through motherly love and familial support, readmitted into the social world because she was made to realise she was cared about. Naked’s Johnny rejects all trapping of support, spurns what he sees as an emasculating network of interdependence, because he has the lonely, moody street of male art-cinema angst stretching out in front of him.

Life Is Sweet (1990)

It would be short-sighted, however, to see Johnny’s misogyny as an entirely new presence in Leigh’s films. Significant numbers of Leigh-males had previously displayed a tendency towards threatening violence against women, particularly women who were deemed to talk too much. Angela in Abigail’s Party confides that her husband Tony has expressed the wish to Sellotape her mouth shut, while Dick in Grown-Ups summarises Gloria as “yap. yap, yap, all the way through Grandstand”. Women are only to be tolerated at all because of the demands of sexual desire (Tony finds no fault with Beverly’s talkativeness because he wants to get inside her frock) and because the only alternatives, celibacy and homosexuality, cannot be seen as viable options for ‘real men’.

Homosexuality is a notable absence in Leigh’s work, though a pretty reasonable case could be made out for Life is Sweet’s Natalie as a lesbian who hasn’t met the right girl yet. Homosociality, however – the emotional economy through which heterosexual men have their most deep and nourishing relationships with each other while anxiously shoring up their masculinity through structures of sexism and homophobia – is another matter, and at least one of Leigh’s films is an exemplary homosocial text.

Made in 1976 and tracing the tensions between two late-teenage couples, Ronnie and Sandra and Linda and Trevor, The Kiss of Death has much in the way of bad haircuts and worse wallpaper and stilted conversations in shabby pubs to delight any Leigh aficionado. Trevor is another of those men who think women talk too much, and though on the whole he merely shares wordless jokes about this with Ronnie, he shows enough undercurrents of menace to mark him down as one of Naked Johnny’s temperamental predecessors.

Naked (1993)

Unlike Johnny, however, he has someone to turn to when women’s yammering all gets too much, and in a conclusion ripe with subtexts he drives off to the seaside with Ronnie in a stolen wedding limousine still festooned with all the paraphernalia of conjugality – so does the fact that we never see them arrive in Blackpool hint at a certain anxiety about the details of the sleeping arrangement should they book into a hotel? Leaving such feverish speculations aside, what demonstrably links this generally amiable film to Naked is their shared, specific gendering of the trap motif Leigh uses so frequently: the trap is female, women are out to snare you, and domesticity equals a kind of death.

Trevor and Ronnie, we can only assume, will return home to the girls, and Ronnie at least will settle down to married predictability, perhaps in time emulating the ghastly Mr Thornley in Hard Labour, forcibly exacting his Saturday-night sexual tribute with all the finesse of a steamroller. Trevor, though, already reads too many books and if he decides to throw in his job with the undertaker (a knowing nod here to Billy Liar) he could decide on a career of alienation and sexual violence and change his name to johnny.

Ironically, given the hostility noted above towards women’s words, in Naked Johnny is the one who never shuts up. He speaks in endless, ornate, spiralling paragraphs of bad jokes, abuse and self-justification. He is a scrofulous autodidact, a polysyllabic bully on the run in London having raped a woman in Manchester. He likes rough sex, not the currently fashionable ‘transgressions’ of sado-masochism, but non-consensual sexual violence, where the more pain the woman unwillingly feels, the more he enjoys it. This taste is shared by the reptilian businessman Jeremy, except that he has a mobile phone and drinks champagne, so that (shades of High Hopes) he adds economic abuse to the sexual kind, presumably making him ‘worse’ than Johnny who, as a Cardboard City philosopher, is indulged by the film to a rather frightening degree – he might be a rapist but at least he’s not posh. The third principal male character is Brian, a security guard with biblical leanings, fond of referring to women as ‘whores and harlots’ (he also goes in for some serious homosocial bonding, alternately buddyish and competitive, with Johnny).

Naked (1993)

It’s tempting, in the face of such an oppressive stockpile of male abusiveness, to dismiss or excuse Naked as Leigh clearing his system of juices stored up during the making of more sexually democratic films, but its wallow in narcissistic male suffering is disappointingly protracted and uncritical. After a while, you find yourself counting the self-conscious gestures towards oilier stories of wandering, phallocentric ennui, for not only is it a kind of British underclass road movie, it also gives Johnny a monkey fixation to match that of David Warner in the archetype 60s slab of mad-male-artist self-congratulation Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment, while both a copy of The Odyssey and a verbal reference to the Via Dolorosa are dropped in as yet more weighty baggage. It would like to be a bildungsroman, except Johnny’s too in love with the squalid glamour of his doomed trajectory to do any bildung.

And where are the women? Peripheral or allegorical in this remorselessly male landscape, although there is a later and somewhat jarring comic turn in the shape of the nurse Sandra (three parts Grown-Up’s Gloria to one part Meantime’s Barbara). There are important women’s stories to be unearthed from the wreckage, though, especially that of Johnny’s sometime girlfriend Louise, who is prepared to take him on, self-effacingly to offer him healing and comfort, until he scents the dosing trap and bolts for the dosing credits.

In no way could Naked be described as a ‘bad’ film – it has too much razoring, blistering intensity for that, harder to shift from your mind than Gloria was to shift from a sofa, and Thewlis’ lethal performance makes Johnny an unforgettable bastard, a real star turn of a shit. But he’s a shit nonetheless, and Naked is a worrying corner for Mike Leigh to turn.

I don’t for a moment think that the man responsible for some of the most complex and important female roles in recent British cinema is now going to ply new trade as its premier misogynist, but I do worry that Naked might give him an open passport to the European art cinema club, and there are already more than enough self-serving solipsistic little boys pulling faces in that particular mirror. British social comedy is far more important – and it needs all me talents it can get. Come home, Mike, even after Naked all could be forgiven.