Author’s note: Back in 2013, as part of Little White Lies magazine’s special 50th issue, writers were issued a year at random, asked to pick a film from that year, select a single image from the chosen film, and then write something around it. I got 1993, which was a perfect opportunity to write about one of my favourite films—Mike Leigh’s harrowing drama Naked. Last year, at the Toronto Film Festival, I watched Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson’s animation Anomalisa, whose main character is a sexually, spiritually and emotionally troubled marketing and self-help guru voiced by David Thewlis, who, years before, played Naked’s Johnny. I couldn’t help but see a connection between these two disturbed souls. Had I seen Anomalisa before writing the below piece, it would have turned out very differently. Alas…
The dishevelled figure above is not, contrary to appearances, Scooby Doo’s Shaggy as re-imagined by Hieronymus Bosch. Rather, his name is simply Johnny, and, as unforgettably played by David Thewlis, he’s the central figure in Mike Leigh’s scabrous drama Naked. This stark image is taken from the film’s enigmatic final shot.
To the strains of Andrew Dickson’s simultaneously celestial and ominous score, the battered, bruised anti-hero limps, snarling and twitching, down the middle of a wide road, while the camera accelerates away from him at a rate his shattered figure can never hope to keep pace with. Then, without warning: a cut to black, a final, brutal, orchestral clang on the score, and Naked vanishes, leaving an acrid taste in the mouth and a mood of unresolved sadness.
Before we can consider where this urban scarecrow might be headed, we must establish where he’s been. The first clue lies in the towering structure looming in the background, brutishly intruding on that bright morning skyline. It’s the house where Johnny—drifter, misogynist, intellectual bully, vulnerable loner—first shores up having fled Manchester looking to escape a kicking. Leigh was looking for something epic for his central location, and he found it within spitting distance of Hackney Downs. From outside, the house looks vast, but it is boxy and constricted inside. Within this cancerous home-as-heart, the grimy rooms act as ventricles and the dank stairwells as valves, pumping transient malcontents around in a perverse, restless simulacrum of screwball comedy. There’s Johnny’s sad, Mancunian ex-girlfriend Louise (Lesley Sharp), her wayward flatmate Sophie (Katrin Cartlidge), and, eventually, yuppie rapist landlord Jeremy (Gregg Cruttwell).
Jaundiced Johnny heads from this bleak house into an appropriately Dickensian London—a poetically realised, roughly stylised Capital of dislocated, anomie-stricken waifs and strays, where geographical verisimilitude vaporises like the fog in the night air (for example, Soho magically becomes Shoreditch). Eventually taking a beating from a gang of ne’er-do-wells, Johnny makes a tentative bond with Louise. But it’s a false dawn, a real kicker: when she goes to work he steals a wad of cash and heads off on that road to … well, where, exactly?
We could interpret Johnny’s final betrayal of Louise as evidence of him being on the metaphorical road to hell. In my darker moments, I envisage Johnny as being so spiritually bereft, so disgusted at himself and the world that, following that cut to black, he limps up to the infamous Hornsea Lane Bridge and hurls himself off, thereby joining the likes of Janis Joplin, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Kurt Cobain in the ghoulish “27 Club” of troubled souls who fail to make it past that age.
But hang on. Let’s say Johnny doesn’t give up on life; let’s say that his fizzing disaffection keeps him going. Only an optimist could dare hope that Johnny would turn around on that road, return the money and head back to Manchester with Louise. But maybe he’d get there eventually, patch things up, and land a part-time job in, say, an anarchist bookstore. What of his woman problem? Maybe age would help his sporadic moments of tenderness calcify into a greater maturity; his peacockish misogyny left behind for good.
We know for a fact that the world didn’t, as Johnny had fervently espoused, end on August 18th 1999, even though one can very well imagine him freaking out about the much-vaunted ‘Millennium Bug’. So Johnny would be 47-years-old today. But if he thought the world was hopelessly materialistic in 1993, what would he have made of New Labour? Of Britpop? Of Big Brother, or reality TV in general? Twitter? Buzzfeed? Contactless payment? Google Glass? The mind boggles, but I’m given to suspect he might be well-suited to internet forums, littering below-the-line comments sections with conspiratorial, poorly-punctuated post 9/11 jeremiads.
Of course, Naked being a thing of fiction and all, we’ll never know. The lasting greatness of Leigh’s film derives from the teasing ambiguity of that beautifully poised final shot. Leigh could have killed Johnny off, or resorted to a moral, final conclusion. Instead, by inviting us to speculate, and rejecting the impulse to tie things up neatly, Leigh ensures that the vividly-realised Johnny can live on, limping through our collective consciousness forever.