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Mike Leigh (1943 - )

Lifespan: 1943 -

Related: kitchen sink drama - cinematic realism - naturalism - social realism - director - British cinema

Mike Leigh emerged as a significant figure in British cinema in the 1990s with a series of films financed by Channel 4 about working and middle class life in modern England, including Life Is Sweet (1991), Naked (1993) and his biggest hit Secrets and Lies, which won the Palm D'Or at Cannes.

Naked (1993) - Mike Leigh [Amazon.com]

In between his breakthrough film Life Is Sweet and his world sensation Secrets and Lies, filmmaker Mike Leigh created his most abrasive and daring film, Naked. This "Angry Young Man" for the 1990s follows an acidic wanderer (Cannes award winner David Thewlis) who observes a corrosive Britain. An intellectual, bitter film filtered with debauchery and black humor, Naked follows the bemusing Johnny as he crosses in and out of doorways, drifting into old acquaintances and new lost souls. It is more of a character film than sheer entertainment and thus it can be hard to watch, but it offers one of the great performances of the 1990s. Thewlis would have been an Oscar shoo-in if he'd worn a tuxedo and repressed his emotions. He didn't, and his brilliant work went unrecognized in mainstream America. --Doug Thomas for Amazon.com


Mike Leigh (born 20 February 1943) is an award winning British film director. He has made a number of films, usually choosing "down to earth" subjects and subject matter. His films are usually set in London.

In his cinematographic career, which he pursued quite late in his life, he has won several prizes in some of the major European film festivals. Most notably he gained two Palme d'Or in Cannes: in 1993 for the best director with Naked and in 1996 for the best film with Secrets & Lies.

He won the Leone d'Oro for the best film at the International Venice Film Festival in 2004 with Vera Drake. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mike_Leigh [Nov 2004]

Naked (1993)

Forget "Trainspotting" - "Naked" is the best British film of the decade. It's an angry film, comparable to Billy Wilder at his vitriolic best, and the film's intensity might prove too much for some viewers. Mike Leigh's masterpiece opens somewhere in Manchester, with a couple having sex in a dark alleyway; the emphasis is on the violence of the act, and we're not really sure if it constitutes a rape. This is modern Britain, and writer-director Leigh paints a lurid picture of a country in crisis ('where Kinnock fumbles, and Thatcher lies', as songwriter Mike Scott succinctly put it some years ago, in his song "Old England"). The main focus in "Naked" - he cannot be called the 'hero', for there is absolutely nothing heroic about him - is on Johnny, played with ferocious energy by young actor David Thewlis (his performance joins Jack Lemmon's tour de force in "Glengarry Glen Ross", as the best of the 90s); bitterness governs his every utterance, and his obvious intelligence and vision is filtered through an overriding cynicism that makes mincemeat of everybody and everything in its path. We meet Johnny in this opening sequence, and he is rarely out of camera-shot in the entire film; he is a character that could have come from the pen of Beckett by way of Irvine Welsh, a damned - and damning - prophet (he's Gandalf crossed with Sid Vicious, but more waster than wizard). Immediately after his antics of the first scene, Johnny steals a car and drives it to London ('the big shitty,' to use his own vernacular), where he thrusts his wit upon everyone he encounters, but meets his match in yuppie Jeremy (the real villain of the piece).

Once in London, Johnny visits an ex-girlfriend, Louise, played by the always excellent Lesley Sharp, who lives in a filthy flat with unemployed Sophie and nurse Sandra. His encounter with wacky Sophie, herself an intelligent soul beneath a drug-fuelled sorrowful existence, is a standout, horrific in its depiction of two burned-out souls clinging to each other: it says more about the Britain of the Nineties than most other films. It is clear from this encounter - if the film's first scene wasn't enough - that Johnny is a misogynist: he likes to inflict pain in his relationships with women, both physical and psychological pain, and his ornate and witty phrase-making, taking in everything from "The Book of Revelations" to Homer's "Odyssey", cannot completely disguise this aspect of his character. "You've had the universe and you're bored with it," he yells at his ex, but he could just as well turn these words back on himself, moving, as he does, through a bleak universe with nothing but loaded - and, in the end, empty - words to offer any kind of guidance. In the film's most telling scene, Johnny is offered shelter from the storm by a nightwatchman who guards an empty office building. This purveyor of security for the self-centred has read the Bible too, and he enjoys the ensuing argumentative battle with Johnny. This guard of dishonour cannot compete with Johnny's stream-of-consciousness discourse on the ills of Modern Life: imagine a world where the barcode - a symbol that adorns every item these days - seems to be proof that the Apocalypse is around the corner; Johnny's pessism almost sells the idea, his cavernous mind working overtime creating his very own vision of the future.

Even though Leigh is noted for the heightened realism of his work (often dubbed "social surrealism"), his characters - at least in his earlier films - are usually likeable and usually female (think of Alison Steadman in "Life Is Sweet" or Brenda Blethyn in "Secrets & Lies"); "Naked" marks a change in direction for director Leigh; his earlier films tended to have women as their central characters, with a certain sense of camaraderie existing between these modern women and their creator (Leigh has created some of the most interesting women in films). Johnny is a stark departure from this earlier cosiness, but there is a corresponding deepening of dramatic texture due to this embracing of the dark side of our souls - watching Johnny cut through the cosy bullshit is a tuning point for Leigh's cinema. But there are worse predators in Britain's social jungle. Enter Jeremy. As played by Gregg Cruttwell, this character is much more dangerous than Johnny. He is the yuppie from Hell - a rapist who uses money as his weapon of choice (Leigh is suggesting that his economic situation almost gives him a licence to do what he does and get away with it). Even Johnny cowers in his presence. If we are in some doubt as to the consensual nature of the sex in Naked's first scene, we are left in no doubt that Jeremy rapes and humiliates Sophie beyond any sense of reason. He's what Shakespeare would have called a smiling damned villain, and what Leigh presents as the future of Britain. No wonder Johnny is mad as hell, but Howard Beale has nothing on him (Johnny will still have to take it: no choice, you see).

Life - the dark side of existence, that is - has rarely been portrayed with such overpowering bleak imagery (Leigh is a modern Dickens in this regard), where conversation is almost a bloodsport. I guess I'll have to leave the last word to Johnny: on first meeting Louise in London, where she asks him how he got here -

"Well, basically, there was this little dot, right? And the dot went bang, and the bang expanded, energy formed into matter, matter cooled, matter lived, the amoeba to fish, to fish to fowl, to fowl to froggie, to froggie to mammal, to mammal to monkey, to monkey to man: amo, amas, amat, quid pro quo, momento mori, ad infinitum, sprinkle on little bits of grated cheese and leave under the grill til Doomsday." --Noel O'Shea

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