February 13, 2006
It has been said that there is a fine line between genius and madness and this is certainly epitomized by the protagonist of Mike Leigh’s Naked (1993), a scathing, uncompromising portrait of an angry young man. Does genius preclude or cause madness? Most people can’t see the dots to connect them unlike geniuses who are able to see the bigger picture. Naked is a film that is as direct and honest as its title suggests.
Naked takes an unflinching look at a drifter named Johnny (Thewlis) who has arrived from Manchester to visit with his friend Louise (Sharpe) and her roommate Sophie (Cartlidge) in London. He looks like someone you’d see living on the street but he’s extremely smart: a fascinating philosopher who engages anyone he meets in a variety topics ranging from evolution to the notion of time to the end of the world. Johnny’s misadventures are paralleled with those of Jeremy (Crutwell), a nasty bit of Yuppie scum with a perchance for violent sex (something that Johnny is also into). As the film progresses, Johnny and Jeremy’s story-lines eventually dovetail into a volatile confrontation.
During the course of his travels, Johnny meets a colourful assortment of people, most notably a hyperactive Scotsman (Bremner) looking for his girlfriend (Vidler) and security guard (who is guarding space as he puts it) named Brian (Wight). The conversation between him and Johnny is arguably the most interesting exchange in the entire movie as Johnny explains the concept of time and the relationship between the past, the present and the future. They also talk about the prophecies in the Bible and how the Mark of the Beast is included on bar codes. Their conversation is the verbal equivalent to the chess match in The Seventh Seal (1957).
Naked is propelled by a searing performance by David Thewlis who plays an unlikable character that partakes in aggressive sex and verbally abuses those around him but is still fascinating to watch because he is a restless soul with a busy mind teeming with brilliant ruminations on life. Like his mind, Johnny is constantly moving from place to place, never settling down. All of the knowledge he retains leads to vast realizations and this makes him crazy. His scathing wit (one memorable exchange: “Do you believe in past lives?” Brian asks, to which Johnny replies, “In a past life I was dead.”) and dark sense of humour mirrors his all-black attire.
Where Johnny still has a shred of humanity, Jeremy says whatever comes to mind with none of the filters of civilized society. He enjoys dominating anyone who crosses his path. He is a nasty Alpha Male without intelligence. In many respects, he is the British answer to American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman without the niceties: a true, amoral monster.
Mike Leigh’s portrait of London is a drab, grungy one filled with desperate lonely souls and dirty, rubble-strewn streets – the antithesis of the warm, romanticism of Richard Curtis movies like Notting Hill (1999). There is nothing romantic about Naked. Sex is portrayed as a rough, animalistic act where men cruelly dominate women. It is Johnny’s cynical worldview that dominates the film and is one of its most intriguing aspects. Naked is one of the most important films to come out in the 1990s. It is an angry howl of protest against Margaret Thatcher’s ‘80s England.
The first disc features an audio commentary by writer/director Mike Leigh and actors David Thewlis and Katrin Cartlidge that was taken from the previously released laser disc. Leigh wanted to start the movie by showing Johnny at his worst and as the film progresses it is revealed what a complex character he is. The filmmaker talks about how each scene evolved from extensive improvisation between the actors in rehearsals and then written into script form. The late, great Cartlidge offers some very smart observations about her character’s motivations while Thewlis talks about Leigh’s working methods. This is a smart, extremely informative track with excellent comments from all the participants.
Also included is the original theatrical trailer.
The second disc features “Neil LaBute on Naked.” The director of Your Friends and Neighbors (1998) discusses what he likes about Leigh’s film: the relationships between people living in a city like London and how they don’t quite connect with one another. He compares Thewlis’ visceral performance to that of Marlon Brando’s in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951).
“The Art Zone: ‘The Conversation’” features novelist Will Self interviewing Leigh in March 2000 for a BBC arts show. These two intelligent men talk about Leigh’s movies and his particular worldview. Self comes off as pretentious at times (especially when he talks about his own work) but does have some spot-on observations like when he describes Leigh’s work as being “spiritual” in nature.
Finally, there is “The Short and Curlies,” a short film Leigh made with Thewlis and Alison Steadman in 1987 about a romance between a hairdresser’s daughter and a young man. This is a whimsical comedy and certainly a sharp contrast to the future Leigh-Thewlis collaboration, Naked. This is another well-made snapshot of working class English life with Thewlis excellent as a nerdy joke teller. On the optional commentary track, Leigh says that the actor’s character slightly anticipates Johnny with their perchance for quotations.