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The Life I’ve Got: Favourite British Bleak Films


Johnny sits by himself at night outside a closed shop
Whatever else he is, Johnny (David Thewlis) is not bored…

Was I bored? No, I wasn’t f*****g bored. I’m never bored. That’s the trouble with everybody. You’re all so bored. You’ve had nature explained to you, and you’re bored with it. You’ve had the living body explained to you, and you’re bored with it. You’ve had the universe explained to you, and you’re bored with it. So now you just want cheap thrills and plenty of ’em…and it don’t matter how tawdry or vacuous they are as long as it’s new, as long as it’s new, as long as it flashes and f*****g bleeps in different colours. Well, whatever else you can say about me, I’m not f*****g bored.

Johnny (played by David Thewlis)

In a lot of respects, this bleak classic by Mike Leigh is the least typical of his films. The film holds a dark heart full of cynicism and bitterness, unchecked by the usual warmth found somewhere in any of Leigh’s other films.

Leigh himself has said that he talks about the film “in terms of the apocalypse, the end of the century and impending doom.” [1] He has also said “We had a very enlightened teacher who endlessly reminded us that the next total eclipse would be in August 1999. Later I started thinking about the millennium and the end of the world. In 1992 the millennium was impending, so I brought that idea to the film.”

In terms of bleak films, you can’t really get any bleaker than the apocalypse, can you?

But this wasn’t an apocalypse of a Christian nature. This was an unwitting apocalypse of human instigation, created from the inequality, confusion and alienation wrought by a capitalist system, the impulses we are not disciplined enough to resist and the awful things we are willing to do to others in the name of gratification.

Naked, much like its lead character Johnny (played by David Thewlis), is an intellectual film full of intelligent and eclectic ideas yet chooses to disperse them in erratic, contemptuous bursts of bile straight from the gutter.

Johnny is a well read, intelligent working-class Mancunian who cannot control his own temper and his ego, feeling the need to assault everyone who he comes into contact with his intelligence, a never-ending spitfire monologue streaming from his lips. Having run away from home to London after a sexual encounter turns nasty, he winds up at his ex-girlfriend’s flat, barrels her with contempt for having the audacity to let her stay with him, then heads into the city to take in an odyssey of anxious paranoid homeless Scots, lonely women dancing in their windows in the hope that somebody will find them desirable and pay them attention, and security guards paid to watch over empty buildings that might be used by someone in the future. Oh, and conspiracy theories about bar codes forming the mark of the devil as per the Book of Revelations. Of course.

It’s a slightly dreamlike world presided over by paranoia, loneliness and need, and the really crushing detail is that there really are people like the woman dancing in the window, and they will never see their dreams fulfilled.

Meanwhile, a ruthless landlord named Jeremy, a loathsome yuppie whose self-love, arrogance and contempt for others is so complete that he makes Patrick Bateman like a poor man’s parody. That he lets himself into apartments he owns and forces himself sexually on his female tenants, all the while asking coarse, crude personal questions in his smooth-as-honey voice, is as good a metaphor as any for the power relations between classes in the UK and just as contemptible because Jeremy refuses to leave after he has finished his assault, continuing to insult and insinuate through the use of supposedly innocent questioning; much like being questioned by a governmental bureaucrat but taken to its extreme limit.

A film where only the powerful young landlord leaves happy by the end, this is a film that shows us how the world ends: not with a bang or a whimper, but a rant, at everyone and everything until there is only you, alone, raging into a cold indifferent void.

That is the world of Naked.

[1] Leigh, Mike and Raphael, Amy. Mike Leigh on Mike Leigh. London: Faber & Faber, 2008
Chris Flackett

Written by Chris Flackett

Chris Flackett is a writer for 25YL who loves Twin Peaks, David Lynch, great absurdist literature and listens to music like he's breathing oxygen. He lives in Manchester, England with his beautiful wife, three kids and the ghosts of Manchester music history all around him.

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