Directed by: Mike Leigh.
Written by: Mike Leigh.
Starring: David Thewlis (Johnny), Lesley Sharp (Louise Clancy), Katrin Cartlidge (Sophie), Greg Cruttwell (Jeremy G. Smart), Claire Skinner (Sandra), Peter Wight (Brian), Ewen Bremner (Archie), Susan Vidler (Maggie), Deborah MacLaren (Woman in Window), Gina McKee (Cafe Girl), Carolina Giammetta (Masseuse), Elizabeth Berrington (Giselle), Darren Tunstall (Poster Man), Robert Putt (Chauffeur), Lynda Rooke (Victim).
Mike Leigh is one of the great humanist directors working in the world today. Throughout his career, the British Class system has been one of his major, recurring themes – where he often finds the humanity in flawed people in the lower class trying to do the right thing. In between two of his best movies – Life is Sweet (1991) and Secrets and Lies (1996), which were two movies about flawed families trying their best, he made what could be his masterpiece – Naked. The film is every bit as well observed, well directed and well-acted as anything Leigh has done – but it takes all that repressed anger and resentment that is often buried in his characters and brings it to the surface. This is a harsh, violent, ugly film in many ways – it starts with what at best is violent sex that turns into rape and at worst is straight ahead rape – and simply gets darker from there. It contains one of the greatest screen performances of the 1990s by David Thewlis as Johnny – an angry man in his late 20s (although he looks older) – who pretty much hates everyone and everything – and isn’t afraid to tell anyone that to their face.
The structure of Naked is mostly episodic – there really isn’t a plot to the movie, because its characters wouldn’t fit neatly into a real plot. After the rape that begins the film, Johnny is scared – he’s going to take a beating, and doesn’t want it – so he steals a car and leaves Manchester bound for London. There he shows up, unannounced, on the doorstep of an old girlfriend – Louise (Lesley Sharp). She’s not there, but one of her roommates, Sophie (Katrin Cartlidge) is. She’s immediately drawn to Johnny – and he uses her in order to anger Louise – likely for the sin of leaving Manchester for the Big City. But he cannot stand being at their place for long, and will eventually head out into the dark streets of London to spread his misanthropic worldview to anyone who will listen to him. What follows is pretty much one ugly encounter after another. It doesn’t matter if the people he meets are nice to him – like a security guard who takes pity on him being out in the cold alone – or are mean to him. Johnny wants to punish them all equally. For what? Nothing, except for the fact that Johnny is still alive and all he wants to do is spread misery to all.
All of this probably makes Naked sound like a long, bleak, depressing movie – and truth be told much of the film is just that. At times, the film resembles Johnny – and seems like it may devolve into little more than a long, angry rant that can be both brilliant and tedious. The best remembered scene has to be the one with Johnny and the security guard, where he essentially lays down his bile filled worldview in all of its ugliness for the world to see. Thewlis is brilliant in this scene – it really is one of the greatest rants in screen history. Yet I think Naked is far more than just a bitter, brilliant rant at the world. In the film’s late stages, it becomes almost touching as Johnny finally lets his guard down and lets us see the person underneath all of that anger. We are told early in the film that Johnny and Louise were together for an entire year – and we wonder how anyone could possibly stand being around him for anywhere near that long. But those late scenes show a glimpse of the man Johnny is under all that bluster. He is a man who wants desperately to be loved, and yet cannot stand to be caged – domesticated if you will. He punishes Louise by using her roommate if for no other reason than because she loves him – or at least still feels affection for him. Sophie’s feelings don’t enter into his vision at all – and the pair share another violent sex scene that is perhaps the saddest, most pathetic sex scene I’ve ever seen in a movie. Thewlis, rightly, gets a lot of praise for his performance in this movie (he won the Best Actor Prize at Cannes that year). It’s the type of performance that can define an actor’s entire career – as it does here. Even when he plays someone much kinder, like in the Harry Potter movies, part of me always sees Johnny. But the other actors deserve credit in the film as well – especially Sharp, who makes Louise into the film’s only somewhat normal character, and a wealth of humanity, and Cartlidge, whose Sophie is one of the saddest characters you’ll ever see in a movie – wanting so desperately to be loved, and never getting any.
Leigh’s only misstep in Naked is the character of Jeremy (Greg Crutwell) – the women’s rich landlord, who we periodically return to throughout the course of the movie until he finally shows up at the house in the late stages. He’s an even bigger asshole than Johnny is – with no redeeming qualities whatsoever – and an undeniable rapist. He’s rich, of course, so he just thinks he can take whatever he wants from the poor characters – and he’s mainly right. I’m not quite sure what he’s doing in this movie – perhaps he acts as Leigh’s excuse for Johnny’s poor behavior, showing it could be worse or that the rich can be assholes as well. But he doesn’t fit into the rest of the movie, and never really becomes a fully rounded character. Leigh, who spends months working with his cast, improvising the screenplay with no cameras, before having a final screenplay written in time for the start of shooting, usually doesn’t allow a character as one dimensional and blunt as Jeremy into his films. And he really shouldn’t be here either.
But that is a relatively small complaint about an otherwise great film. Leigh’s films have always been interested in class – and there has always been a thread of anger and resentment running through them. For the most part though that anger and resentment has always been buried – kept behind a façade of normalcy. In Naked, he brings it to the front and lets all hell break loose. That Johnny is a horrible human being is not really debatable. But Leigh sees him, and the world he inhabits, with perfect clarity. Naked may just be the best film of Leigh’s career.