UK (1993) Dir. Mike Leigh
“I’m interested in life”
So says the man who spends two hours plus of our time pondering how it is all going to end, and seemingly going out of his way to annoy everyone he meets and getting beaten up for his troubles.
Johnny (David Thewlis) is drifter from Manchester, a well-read, sarcastic, nihilistic chap with an abrasive demeanour. After attempting to rape a woman who fought him off, Johnny steals a car and drives down to Dalston, east London, ending up on the doorstep of his ex-girlfriend Louise (Lesley Sharp) her flat mate Sophie (Katrin Cartlidge), and Sandra (Claire Skinner) who is away on holiday.
With Louise at work, Johnny sleeps with Sophie, causing problems with Louise when she eventually comes home and ending with Johnny leaving the next morning when Sophie gets clingy with him. As Johnny spends the next couple of nights on the street meeting different people, Louise and Sophie have another problem guest in posh boy Sebastian Hawk (Greg Cruttwell), their entitled landlord also with a rampant libido.
Along with Ken Loach, Mike Leigh is one the finest chroniclers of British life in TV and cinema. Whether it is his satirical plays like the classic Abigail’s Party or the whimsically observant Nuts In May, Leigh creates characters that seem like caricatures but are very real. Moving from the small screen to the big screen, the gloves came off and Leigh took a headlong dive into the darker side of life.
Not all of his works were so gritty and confrontational, but Leigh never shied away from the topics of the day. Unlike Loach whose films have a strong socio-political message, Leigh tends to use his characters more than the situations to tell his stories. Naked was his first international hit after 20 years of domestic success, scoring awards for Leigh and star David Thewlis at Cannes, for what is a decidedly very British film.
Interestingly, Leigh originally had the idea for this story in ‘60s when, as a student in Manchester, he learned that the next total eclipse would happen in 1999, prompting Leigh to wonder about the dawn of a new millennium. There are two fascinating things to ponder here – one, how much of Leigh’s original vision remained thirty year later and two, how did he come up with a cipher like Johnny for this story?
The bulk of the story is an observation on male behaviour and the rancid culture of men believing their needs are greater than the woman’s, whose purpose is to satiate those desire, either voluntarily or by force. Leigh opens the film with Johnny forcing himself on a terrified woman in a dark alley in one the bolder introductions to the main character – I can’t say “protagonist” in this instance since Johnny antagonises everyone too much; even “anti-hero” feels inaccurate too.
Framing this behaviour within the film’s political subtext, Johnny and Sebastian are symbols of ‘90s Britain, a post-Thatcher world where the ‘80s greed bubble had burst and we were in a recession. Leigh uses this to juxtapose their motives, to wit: when Johnny beds a woman and is rough with them, he is a frustrated, maybe intellectually, because he can’t communicate in a kind way; for Sebastian, it is pure cold entitlement, throwing money at his reluctant conquest for services rendered.
Out of the two, Johnny comes away from this as the more human of the two, at least acknowledging the person he just bedded, not a vapid plaything for his own assumed amusement. Both are damaged goods in that respect, but the Johnny, the hint is that it is psychological and possibly connected to Louise leaving him. For Sebastian, mummy probably loved money more than him.
Yet, for all their weaknesses in falling for Johnny, the woman aren’t doormats and on more than one occasion they fight back, such as the shy café girl worker (Gina McKee), bruising his ego. The one time Johnny refuses a shag is because the drunken woman (Deborah MacLaren) is old enough to be his mum, and this puts him off. His rejection might be cruelly delivered but is quietly noble, again implying where the root of his issue may lie.
But the most fascinating and enjoyable aspect of this film is in the intellectual (pseudo or otherwise) discourses Johnny engages in, showing an almost authoritative knowledge of The Bible, literary classics, and philosophy. The standout comes when night security guard Brian (Peter Wight) lets Johnny into the building from the cold, and they discuss the future. During this fabulous exchange, not only does Leigh presage a cashless society but also the idea of artificial intelligence to keep people alive – in 1993!
David Thewlis, who is simply outstanding as the acerbic, charismatic, incendiary Johnny, got talking to a crackpot American tourist during filming who ranted on about barcodes fulfilling the prophecy of the book of Revelations, with each bar representing the three sixes! He said this sounded like something Johnny would say so Leigh incorporated it into the script.
Familiar faces early in their careers here along with Thewlis include Lesley Sharp, Gina McKee, and Claire Skinner, who only appears in the last 20 minutes and never completes a whole sentence! Katrin Cartlidge sadly passed away in 2002 aged 41. Each woman is different and flawed, but they all have their own unique agency too.
Leigh’s presentation here could be seen as the forerunner to the Dogme ethos – natural light, simple camerawork, etc., the mise-en-scene stark, oppressive, and claustrophobic. Yet even with this minimalist approach, Leigh still creates some visually stunning scenes, such as the silhouettes of Johnny and Brian talking in the building at night.
Personally, I feel Naked should have ended 20 minutes earlier so the last line would have been “I’ve got a hard on!”. In the context of this compulsively scathing, scarily prescient (and still relevant) film, it is the perfect way to conclude this trenchant black comedy.