2.27.2017

Mike Leigh's Odyssey


Johnny (David Thewlis) in Naked.

Watching Mike Leigh’s Naked (1993) I think it makes sense to see the film as a kind of modern-day epic, an ironic or degraded rewriting of Homer’s Odyssey to stand alongside such related works as Contempt and Ulysses.  Johnny (David Thewlis), Naked’s “peripatetic” (his word) anti-hero, spends about five days’ time wandering through the streets of London; in lieu of sirens, monsters, and sorceresses he encounters vagabonds, bureaucrats, and disaffected proletarians.  In the fallen world of Leigh’s film, heroic action seems impossible (it’s unclear what, if anything, Johnny wants to do); home is difficult to identify, let alone reach (does he want to be in Manchester or London, or some other place?); and the end of the world is nigh (he believes that the world will end in 1999, as predicted by Nostradamus, and he quotes liberally from the book of Revelation).

Johnny as Odyssean wanderer.

The Ithaca in this squalid tale is represented by the cramped three-bedroom flat shared by Johnny’s ex-girlfriend Louise (Lesley Sharpe) and two female roommates.  If Louise is the film’s Penelope figure, than the figure of the invading suitor is represented by the predatory “landlord from hell” Jeremy, a rapist and a prig who uses the power of his class and gender to lay claim to the space of the flat as well as the women who live there—a form of territory marking.  The women are stymied; they realize they’re powerless to kick him out.  After all, he owns the place.  The women contemplate calling the police, but realize that “they’re gonna take one look at him in his suit, look at us, and who do you think they’re gonna believe?”

Jeremy (Greg Cruttwell) with Louise and Sophie in the kitchen.

It’s typical of Leigh’s Marxist irony that, in the end, no one ejects Jeremy.  He eventually saunters out of the flat of his own accord (though Louise, brandishing a carving knife, has threatened to cut off his penis if he doesn’t leave her alone—a remark that must have seemed even more jolting in 1993, the year of the Lorena Bobbitt case, than it does today).  In any case, the capitalist monster at the heart of Naked retreats but is never really defeated, certainly not by Johnny, who returns to the flat bruised and battered, having been set upon by a gang of marauding hooligans.  This is an Ithaca still very much overrun with usurpers.  Or is Manchester, the town where Johnny and Louise once lived together, the film’s analog to Ithaca?  They make plans to return there at the end of the film, though it’s unclear whether they will actually go; even if they do, their future there seems hardly brighter than the one that awaits them in London.  “Take me back to Manchester when it’s raining,” they sing. “I want to feel the soot get in me hair…”  (More Leigh irony.)   

"Take me back to Manchester": Johnny with Louise.

The film explicitly drops Homer’s name when Johnny follows a sullen barmaid (Gina McKee) back to the flat she’s subletting from a pair of homosexual classicists.  Taking a look around at their living room, appointed with statues of Roman soldiers and Olympian athletes, Johnny slips into wisecracking—his standard mode of discourse.  “I find all this a bit sad,” he says.  “I don’t mean that to sound Homer-phobic.  I mean, I like The Iliad and The Odyssey.”  He looks at the girl, hoping for some sort of reaction.  She just stares back at him dumbly.  “Did you get that?” he asks.  Negative.  He picks up a copy of The Odyssey from the bookshelf.  “Do you get it now?”  Blank stare from the girl.  “Do you know this?”  A small shake of the head.  “I bet you do.  You’ve most likely done it at school.  You just can’t remember.”  But there’s nothing in blankness of her gaze to suggest that she has—no flicker of recognition.  It’s one of the film’s many moments of quiet despair, registered by Johnny and shared by us, a vision of the contemporary world as vacuous and dead.  Passive, frail, mute, the barmaid is the opposite side of Jeremy’s coin: they are twins in their lack of depth and their incapacity for reflection.  Empty and soulless, they resemble the office building over which the security guard Brian (Peter Wight) keeps watch every night: the lights are on, but there’s nothing there.         


The blank stare of the barmaid--and Johnny's disappointed reaction.

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