Time and memory moves in strange ways. I loved this film when I first saw it, only a few years after it was originally released, but rewatching it over two decades later I find myself a lot less tolerant of David Thewlis’s witty, wisecracking Johnny. He’s a toxic figure, a man who is introduced to us before the credits raping a woman in a Mancunian back alley before stealing a car and driving to London. His erudition tends towards the apocalyptic and his constant allusions and references are a linguistic distraction, the dangers of a first class education wasted on idly baiting those with less education than he has without really saying very much at all. He is fatuously condescending towards anyone he doesn’t want to engage with, and particularly seems to like picking up women he considers his intellectual inferiors. (Which every woman character here seems to be; like many of Leigh’s films the women feel so shallowly drawn, an assemblage of actorly tics in some cases, and I wonder if that’s just because he devotes less time to drawing out their characters.) In any case, you spend the entire film waiting, maybe even hoping for Johnny’s comeuppance, and the only thing that makes him in any redeemable is that there are even worse men in this world (the oleaginous yuppie landlord Sebastian/Jeremy, for example).
The way that Johnny is placed into situations has an affect to it of course: this is not so much a kitchen-sink bit of neorealism as a very constructed series of self-aware Socratic dialogues, as Johnny’s interlocutor engages those he meets in one-on-one conversation, during which he reveals his deep cynicism at the state of the world and its future. His is an attitude very firmly tied to the legacy of the Thatcher years, and that is I suppose where the film’s anger lies. Like the recent Criterion release Boudu Saved from Drowning (1932), this is a bleakly comic film angry about bourgeois privilege which is focused on an unkempt outsider who shuns society’s norms. And like that film, I find it hard to connect with its antihero, though there’s a sort of purity to its unrelentingly grim apocalyptic message.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Mike Leigh; Cinematographer Dick Pope; Starring David Thewlis, Katrin Cartlidge, Lesley Sharp; Length 131 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 5 April 2020 (and originally on VHS at home, Wellington, July 1997).