Having fled Manchester after a violent sexual incident, Johnny (Thewlis) a crusty whose ragged 'tache and unwashed hair are not a grunge fashion statement but a way of filth turns up at the London flat of an embittered and puzzled ex-girlfriend (Sharp) and has a one-night stand with her stringy, stoned, unemployed flatmate (Cartlidge). After verbally (and borderline physically) abusing both girls the next morning, Johnny stalks out and pinballs around a succession of no-hopers.
When some strangers give him the beating he's been asking for all along, he crawls back to Sharp and Cartlidge only to find they've been invaded by their yuppie, rapist landlord (Greg Cruttwell). Then the girls' third flat-sharer (Claire Skinner) comes back from Zimbabwe and finds no one has done the washing-up for three months and everyone needs help.
Mike Leigh sees a Britain everybody knows exists but would rather not think about, and this is a nightmare journey, at once horrific and funny, through a twilight London of the excluded and the rejected. Johnny, bitter, stupid, articulate, unpleasant and heart-breaking, is in no sense a hero, but absolutely symptomatic of the era which has produced him and which he hates enough to pour poison over at every opportunity. While one or two scenes ramble on longer than is either interesting or comfortable and the portable-phone-wielding monster landlord doesn't have the resonance of the rest of the deadbeat characters, this is a masterpiece of dark humour and horribly accurate observation.
If America's nightmare self-image is Bad Lieutenant, this is the British answer: just as driven, visionary and self-destructive but not needing an excess of drugs or blood to showcase human horrors. Brilliantly acted, especially by Thewlis in the trickiest role of the year, and free of the TV look that has sometimes cramped Leigh's style in the past.