on 1 September 2008
Naked hit me like a sledgehammer when I first saw it. Unmatched in intensity, it examines several lives in different degrees of detail with one thing in common. They are all alone - even the girls who share the flat and the rich City boy with his girlfriends and conquests. Johnny links them together - his interactions with them, at times gentle, at times vicious and vile. We see, through excellence of acting and writing which is taut but often exuberant, how the morass of London isolates as often as it brings together.
This is a true London film, made up mostly of non-Londonders. It shines a light onto people living in the early 90s, recession-hit, post-Thatcher period. It is a political film, polemical and angry. Johnny is seemingly full of wonder at the world, railing against the 'me, now' generation, and yet deeply cynical about the purpose of existence.
Mike Leigh was accused of being misanthropic with Naked, focusing on the worst of human nature. But you can take from it what you want - in some people's lives there is little or no redemption, but there are moments. Moments of joy, kindness, laughter - even among the despair. You can take the great lines, the arguments, the speeches, the quotations. Take the fact that your life might have gone down the route of many of those people, but didn't. If it sounds like I treated this film like a religious experience, for many years I did. It is beautiful and powerful, rich and epic in its themes. I've never seen another film that spoke more to me about people.
Someone I know once called this the "Most depressing film I have ever seen ". He obviously hadn't seen "Mad Cows" or "Pearl Harbour" for while Naked is without doubt ,a bleak, sordid trawl through Britain's or more appositely London's underbelly it is shot through with caustic humour , odd moments of baffling empathy and is disturbingly compulsive .
Naked is ,to give it a slightly pseudo sarky synopsis in thrall to its nihilistic anti-hero , an Oddysey for the nineties ( it was released in 1993)as Johnny (David Thewlis)flees his native Manchester for London to escape the beating surely coming his way after raping a girl in an alleyway. Johnny isn't a very nice person, He's misogynistic (Indeed the whole film has been accused of misogyny , overlooking the fact that the films moral centre is female), cruel , calculating and mendacious .However he is also laceratingly witty , and fiercely intelligent so that despite his objectionable behavoiur his painful self awareness and razor sharp mind win you over.
Once in London Johnny tracks down ex-girlfriend Louise (Lesley Sharp) who is sharing a flat with neurotic Lesley (Karin Cartlidge) .Johnny , quick to spot vulnerability seduces Lesley .The flats landlord Jeremy (Greg Cruttwell) , is the films one character drawn in broad strokes A virulently obnoxious product of Thatcher's policies and world view he is a snorting stalking oil slick of a man , happy to accept sexual favours in lieu of rent and dispensing crass one liners like the repulsive off spring of Alan Bastard and Bernard Manning .
Johnny wishing to escape the clutches of the over bearing Lesley goes an fascinating tour of the capitols seamy back streets interacting with the characters he randomly bumps into. There is Archie(Ewen Bremner) , a young Scotsman with a violent tick -which Johnny relentlessly mimics ,screaming for his girlfriend Maggie( Susan Vidler). While Archie is clearly disturbed and completely disenfranchised to Johnny he is mere amusement and once bored with him he moves on meeting Brian ( Peter Wright) a night watchman "Guarding Space" and its here , in their exchanges that Johnny's voracious intelligence and veracity really shines as he flattens the trusting and gentle Brian with his apocalyptic logic.
He taunts Brian by seducing a women(Deborah McClaren) Brian has been observing from his workplace, winds up a wired fly poster(Darren Tuntstall) so much that he head butts him, then attempts to win over an attractive waitress in a café(Gina Mckee) before being beaten up by a laughing gang in an alley way . Crawling back to the flat he is given the option of a way out of his current sordid life by the empathic Louise , but not before the return of the flats true owner Sandra(Claire Skinner)back from a holiday in Africa who is so appalled by events that she is rendered almost speechless ,not that it stops her trying as Johnny finishes her sentences for her in vary funny scene.
The film ends on a down beat note as Johnny having shared a tender compassionate moment with Louise , the films one truly sympathetic character -a scene which also hints at deep seated psychological problems for him -he steals her money and slinks off limping . The thought of settling down and leading something approximating a normal life which is what Louise offers are more than he can bear and so he rejects her and chooses the sordid nefarious existence instead.
Naked is a relentless trawl though a dystopian country , and sadly one that has if anything descended further into dystopia and societal meltdown. The film relied heavily on improvisation , though little of what we see on screen was ad-libbed , the improvisation was more of a tool for the actors to know their characters .Thewlis gives an absolutely mesmerizing performance as Johnny , so much so its hard to see him as anyone else , and the other actors are all superb . Naked is truly great British film and an inexplicably overlooked one at that . It's not easy viewing , for sure but there aren't many films that you come way from looking at not just the events portrayed differently but life as a whole. You may reject most of it but think about it you will .
Mike Leigh's 1993 film Naked is undoubtedly his most controversial (and, probably, uncompromising) work, certainly not an easy watch, but, for me at least, it is a film whose complexity and hidden depths are revealed on repeated viewings. Set in bleak, rubble-strewn, 'broken', post-Thatcher, urban Britain, strangely enough, at its heart, and via the bravura performance of David Thewlis' Johnny (easily the best thing Thewlis has done during his up-and-down career), is a tale of idealism and romance (honest!).
Of course, Leigh has, in a sense, disguised these themes under Johnny's extravagant persona, and the master film-maker has many other things to say in Naked, around subjects such as communication (or lack of it) in the modern world and the (veritable) meaning of human existence (and the potential apocalypse). Leigh has also conjured up an immaculate and evocative palette for his view of the mixed up world via cinematographer Dick Pope's stunning photography (including the brilliant, un-Leigh-like opening hand-held sequence of Johnny having rough sex in a back alley, before departing his hometown Manchester for London) and through Andrew Dickson's typically idiosyncratic score, which features a mesmerising, recurring central theme.
Narratively, Naked is more in the 'Leigh Meantime' vein, featuring a series of chance encounters (vignettes) between Johnny and Leigh's chosen set of (sometimes intellectual) verbal, sparring partners for his central protagonist. These include the brilliant sequence featuring Ewen Bremner's Archie ('What's it like being you, a bit hectic?') who is seeking the whereabouts of 'girlfriend' Maggie! - the brilliant Susan Vidler - (a sequence, as Leigh tells it, which attracted the unwanted attention of the police during improvisation as Thewlis and Bremner were still 'in character') and the equally impressive, and dialogue-rich, encounter with Peter Wight's introverted and philosophical security guard Brian, which also reveals Johnny's more tolerant side. Leigh also powerfully depicts the dead-end and isolated nature of (some) modern human existence via Johnny's encounter with Deborah MacLaren's deluded, 'erotic dancer' ('You look like me mother') and with Gina McKee's sad, shy and gullible café worker.
It is though (of course) Thewlis' central performance (and characterisation) which carries the film (and by which the film no doubt succeeds or fails for the audience). Although undoubtedly dependent on the brilliance of Leigh's witty and acerbic script (for me, certainly his best ever), I would find it difficult to over-praise Thewlis' turn, certainly one of the best in recent cinema, with his portrayal of the mercurial, calculating, profound, temperamental, idealistic, lustful ('Thanks for the mammaries'), violent, ironic, well-read, political, witty ('Hello Sandra'), sarcastic, philosophical, abusive, predatory and, of course, uncompromising Johnny. Mancunian Lesley Sharp is also excellent as Johnny's true love, the pragmatic, reserved and 'bored with life', Louise - whose scene with Johnny singing, 'Take me back to Manchester when it's raining...' provides one of the film's most touching moments (and points to Leigh's own Mancunian heritage). Similarly, Katrin Cartlidge is good (if rather exaggerated) as Louise's flat-mate, the monotonic, sultry, insecure, promiscuous, masochistic and obsessive, Sophie (who also provides moments of dark humour, 'Oh God, here we go') as is Claire Skinner as the returning from holiday, 'flat owner', Sandra whose hysterical reaction to the state of debauchery awaiting her (including the inability to complete a sentence), is hilarious. For me, the only weakness in Leigh's characterisations here is Greg Crutwell's vile, misogynist, yuppie landlord, Jeremy/Sebastian, whose turn does rather grate (more than it is supposed to).
Of course, Leigh also does not let the audience off the hook with the potential of a romantic conclusion to Johnny's escapades, and his closing sequence (accompanied by Dickson's mesmerising theme) of Johnny limping off down the street, to who knows where, is one of the most memorable in recent cinema (reminding me, strangely enough, of the ending of The Third Man).
For me, Naked is a film that requires repeat viewings, as a result of which the film has risen in my rankings amongst Leigh's (top) films, whose approximate order would be something like Topsy-Turvy, Meantime, Vera Drake, Naked, Secret And Lies, All Or Nothing, Life Is Sweet and Career Girls.