Mike Leigh


For those of us who grew up watching British films and television few insults are quite so scathing as the accusation/comparison “like something out of a Mike Leigh film.”

For over twenty years, Leigh has been writing and directing meticulously crafted comedies that have charted the (always ghastly) tastes, petty snobberies, and pedantic awfulness of the English with the dead-eyed relish of a butterfly collector.

His classic character studies like ‘Abigail’s Party’, ‘Meantime’, and ‘High Hopes’ have become museum pieces of their day. His latest film though is something of a departure. ‘Naked’ is one of the tougher, bleaker, and more original British films of the last ten years. It is also a triumph for Leigh, who won Best Director at the 1993 Cannes Film Festival, and actor David Thewlis, whose performance as the film’s homeless hero Johnny deservedly took the Best Actor award.

‘Naked’ follows Johnny’s exploits as he flees Manchester after a particularly nasty sexual assault in an alley and goes to London. There, he tracks down an ex-girlfriend, Louise, and talks his way into her roommate Sophie’s bed. Roaming the back streets of the capital, Johnny exchanges a demented prophecy with a bored security guard and, in a series of brutal sexual encounters, vents his rage on any lonely woman he can find. (“I hope you dream about me !” Johnny shouts in one scene, as much at the audience as to the girl. “And I hope you wake up screaming.”)

Not surprisingly, some feminists have condemned Leigh for condoning Johnny’s brutality: for presenting his relentless cruelty to women as an expression of pain. But no matter how badly he behaves – and he treats everyone, not only women, with utter contempt – we are drawn further into his increasingly grim odyssey.

As with many of Leigh’s films, it’s a disturbingly real picture of England, one that tells you more about the sad, shabby, greyness of English life than the rest of this year’s films combined.

His depiction of post-Thatcher London suggests that from its ridiculous yuppies to its unhinged, incoherent, street youths, the populace is unloved, unloving, and sees violence as the only feasible form of communication.

“Yes,” Leigh admits, quietly satisfied. “The London tourist board isn’t exactly clamoring to offer me money. It is about London, and it is about England. But it could be anywhere. We’re talking about global problems.”

Johnny (and ‘Naked’) is obsessed with the future, with existence, evolution, God, and the universe. He maniacally questions the state of things, ranting about reincarnation (“In my past life? I was dead”), chaos theory, technology, hell. He spouts Nostradamus, Revelations, and mythology. (Johnny’s best joke: looking around a gay man’s flat cluttered with kitsch statues of semi-clad Greek gods, and saying “I find all this a bit sad. Not that I’m homophobic. I mean, I like ‘The Iliad’ and ‘The Odyssey’.”)

The dark ferocity of Johnny’s wit recalls some of the great British films of the 1950s and ‘60s (‘Billy Liar’, ‘Alfie’, ‘Look Back in Anger’, and ‘If…’).

“In films from that era the spleen was directed more against the Establishment,” Thewlis explains. “Here it’s at the whole universe.”

A doctor’s son, raised in urban Manchester, Leigh creates characters that are invariably working class or aspirational lower-middle class.

“I grew up in a mundane, humdrum, world. The bottom line of reality for me is humdrum,” he says.

In person he certainly looks the part. Now fifty, wearing a determinedly unfashionable brown sweater and brown corduroys, his bloodhound eyes and gnomish appearance suggest a dour personality. But in conversation he is animated, if somewhat scholarly. Like Woody Allen, but with a more cutting nihilism, Leigh is an actor’s director (although well-known stars angling for parts in his films are usually rejected). Thewlis is the latest in a line of developing talents to work with him. Tim Roth and Gary Oldman (who starred in ‘Meantime’) are among those who have gone on to greater things.

It’s probably a good job Leigh has no Hollywood aspirations, because pitching his films would be a nightmare. Prior to filming, Leigh has no plot in mind, no dialogue – just a few vague themes. With the actors he begins what he calls “an investigation,” through which he unearths the premise. Only then does he start writing the script, which often evolves on location through intensive improvised rehearsals where the cast relive episodes from their characters’ imagined pasts.

With ‘Naked’ Leigh intervened when an improv turned too violent or sexual.

Thewlis explains: “Mike would stop it by saying: ‘come out of character.’ It was like coming down from a fit.”

Describing a scene in a pub with another character Johnny had met for the first time, he laughs: “Just before, we had our hands down each other’s knickers. That was kind of bizarre.”

Leigh’s technique has been described as “the Method gone mad”.

Having signed on without knowing anything about their parts, Thewlis and the other ‘Naked’ actors only understood the film when they saw the final cut.

“For all I knew it could have been a film about hockey players or grave-diggers,” Thewlis says.

Still, like many of Leigh’s collaborators, he is evangelical about the process.

“It’s entirely necessary. We researched a lot of Johnny’s life that isn’t even in the film. But what is in the film couldn’t be in it unless we had done that work.”

“Principally, it is just the way I do it,” admits Leigh. “It’s quite mad, really.”

He tells me about an incident when the actors playing the temperamental, unstable, homeless Scottish kids in ‘Naked’ were improvising on some church steps, screaming at each other.

“The cops pulled up, so I had to step in and be the responsible, middle-class, person,” recalls Leigh, ever the avuncular protector. “Because the rule is, always stay in character unless it’s an absolute emergency. But it was no use. The cops wouldn’t have it.”

It’s easy to imagine the scene in one of his films: the officious police, affronted, scoffing, passers-by, and the pompous, liberal, middle-class director… A case of life imitating Leigh.