I’ve been researching theories of cities recently, and in particular how they interact with and perpetuate capitalism. The general picture from such theories is often one of very cautious, incredibly hypothetical optimism; if certain structures of urban planning and local government could be overturned and replaced by those which were structured around people in their local communities, then we might have some chance of providing better living conditions and be more open and understanding towards the people we encounter on a daily basis. What becomes worrying as one reads these theoretical discourses is when they were written; David Harvey’s Social Justice and the City, for example, which sets out a vision of how we as a society might begin to reach these goals, was published in 1973. There’s a lot of work that would have needed to be done by now in order to reach anything near what Harvey envisaged, and what Mike Leigh’s 'Naked' (1993) presents is that, in the 20 years after Harvey’s text was published, the British urban landscape had become noticeably atomised and fragmented by the forces of an unchecked capitalism which had begun to wreak havoc on both the physical surroundings and mental states of Leigh’s characters. London in Leigh’s film is almost a character in its own right, and in 'Naked’s London all that is encouraged is violence, making and spending money, and the relationship between these processes.
Credit - AlloCiné
'Naked' follows Johnny, played by David Thewlis, who drives to London after raping a woman in Manchester, and who, after hiding at the house of his ex-girlfriend Louise, begins a confused odyssey around London in which he elaborates what appears to be his theory of life to whoever will listen. He remains sexually violent throughout the film, attempting to aggressively seduce almost every woman he comes into contact with. This behaviour is juxtaposed against that of Jeremy, Louise’s landlord, who is similarly violent towards women yet who is notably more wealthy than any of the other characters in the film; it is heavily implied that Jeremy, who later lets himself into Louise’s house and who sexually assaults her friend, believes himself to be entitled to this behaviour. The film concludes, after Jeremy has been removed from the house, with Johnny running away once more after talking to Louise about them both returning to Manchester.
Throughout, Leigh implies that London allows these events to take place. The selection of the film’s backdrop is almost a theoretical discourse itself, or part of a dialogue with the narrative that takes place within it. What is immediately striking to someone who has an understanding of the geography of the city, is that the London Johnny wanders around is a composite neighbourhood of various different locations which would be incredibly inconvenient to walk between and potentially impossible to traverse in one, completely black night. Louise’s house is in Dalston, yet Johnny walks there from the Westway; he meets a homeless Scottish couple in Soho, before loitering outside an office block in Fitzrovia; he then harasses a woman in a cafe near London Bridge station, before being beaten up by someone putting up posters near King’s Cross before returning to Dalston in the early morning two days after he left the house. The film also cuts away at moments in its first half to Jeremy, who is presented in a set of anonymously expensive surroundings which, like Johnny’s London, blur into one. In Leigh’s presentation, London has a fully-formed identity, using its varied forms of architecture to enhance the sense of foreboding which the viewer feels across Johnny’s wanderings; yet at the same time, it has little sense of identity at all, only being used to underscore the narrative. The places Johnny visits are only important because of how they make the audience feel, rather than being specifically tied to the plot, with these locations never being named over the course of the film. London is therefore an anonymised city, apathetic towards the violence and greed which happens within it. Leigh depicts the city at a time of profound change; in one frame, Johnny is pointedly sat in front of what looks like a Victorian building, with a skyscraper in the back of the shot looming over both of them. A security guard who Johnny meets when loitering outside the office block has the task of scanning 20 different points in a building every two hours, for no discernible reason; Johnny calls the building a ‘postmodern gas chamber’.
Credit - AlloCiné
In the present day, 'Naked' is an incredibly challenging film. The sexual violence it depicts is difficult to watch, even though Leigh unequivocally presents these acts in a negative light and the film as a whole has a clear social realist intention that seeks to criticise the environment that allows that violence to happen. Despite its bleak content and aesthetic, I think it is an important film which attempts to address the relationship between the physical city and its inhabitants. To return to my reading on the theory of cities, it reminds me of an opening section from Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities; ‘The scenes that illustrate this book are all about us. For illustrations, please look closely at real cities. While you are looking, you might as well also listen, linger, and think about what you see’.
Edited by Saffron Brown Davis, Film Editor