English Title: Naked
Country of Origin: Britain
Studio: Channel 4, Umbrella, British Screen/Fine Line
Director: Mike Leigh
Producer(s): Simon Channing-Williams
Screenplay: Mike Leigh
Cinematographer: Dick Pope
Editor: John Gregory
Runtime: 131 minutes
Genre: Social Realism
When a sexual encounter with a young woman in an alley turns into an assault, Johnny, a drifter from Manchester, flees to London and tracks down an ex-girlfriend, Louise. While crashing at her house, Johnny seduces Louise’s flatmate Sophie before leaving both women and taking to the streets of nocturnal London. After a series of philosophical and even confrontational encounters with a motley array of individuals who are as desperate or disenfranchised as himself, Johnny returns to Louise and Sophie only to discover that their sinister yuppie landlord Jeremy has imposed his presence on the women.
After the 'kitchen sink' dramas of High Hopes (1988) and Life Is Sweet (1990), Mike Leigh’s follow-up, Naked, is defiantly anti-commercial and all the more daring and memorable for it. The opening scene of rough sex that becomes abusive in a dark alley establishes the desolate and brutal tone, augmented by Andrew Dickson’s moody harp and cello score and Dick Pope’s gritty cinematography. Naked is not an easy film, and watching some parts of it may feel like the proverbial slap in the face, but a slap that may shock the viewer into an alternate way of seeing things.
David Thewlis’ performance as Johnny is a combination of eloquence, nihilism and menacing charisma. As an anti-hero, Johnny is repugnant but he is also capable of great wit and self-awareness. When Louise (Leslie Sharp) asks him, ‘Why are you such a bastard?’, Johnny replies, ‘Monkey see, monkey do.’ The audience may not condone Johnny’s actions or beliefs, but he is reacting to what he sees as the state of the world: ‘Humanity is just a cracked egg.’ His machine-gun polemics and prophecies are ignored or dismissed by the people he encounters, except for Brian (Peter Wight), a security guard, who appears to be the only character to connect with Johnny on an intellectual level.
Johnny’s character appears almost benign when juxtaposed with the misogynistic Jeremy (Greg Cruttwell) and Archie (Ewen Bremner), a belligerent homeless illiterate. Jeremy is representative of an upper class that is rich enough to get away with verbal and sexual sadism, whereas Johnny and Archie can only rail against society from within their economic and class confines. The treatment of the female characters in Naked is highly controversial and the film has been accused of misogyny. But it can be interpreted that such maltreatment is part of the depiction of an abusive and unequal society and that the men are judged for what they do. Subtle and genuine acting from Leslie Sharp, and the late Katrin Cartlidge as Sophie, ensure that the two female leads are more than mere passive victims.
Naked’s strongest sequence is when Johnny spends a night on the streets of early 1990s’ London that is coming down from the materialistic highs of late Thatcherism. Johnny’s intense, philosophical dialogue with Brian, the ‘insecurity’ guard of an antiseptic modern office building, provides one of the most emotionally caustic and bleak scenes Leigh has filmed. Hopeful about his future, Brian tolerates Johnny’s invective and advises him not to ‘waste your life’. Flashes of black humour balance out the despair, such as when Johnny assists Archie in his search for his girlfriend ‘Maggie’, only for their reunion to erupt into a physically abusive argument.
Mike Leigh returned with the less controversial but equally unflinching social realism of Secrets and Lies (1996). Comparisons between Naked and In the Company of Men (Neil Labute, 1997) are invariable due to their common elements of amorality and misogyny, but in its uncompromising candour and examination of dysfunctional characters and relationships, Naked shares more with fellow British films Nil By Mouth (Gary Oldman, 1997) and The War Zone (Tim Roth, 1999).
Author of this review: Eeleen Lee
Peer reviewer: Eeleen Lee