Tuesday, 9 August 2011
Naked (1993) dir. Mike Leigh
Starring: David Thewlis, Lesley Sharp, Gina McKee
Guest review by Blair Stewart
The international breakthrough for Mike Leigh, David Thewlis and British kitchen-sink drama, Naked took home the Best Director and Best Actor Prizes at the 1993 Cannes Film Festival with a bleak journey into London's lower-class depths.
Johnny (David Thewlis) is an embittered creation that steps out of the pages of a Malcolm Lowry screed as we join his stifling presence in post-Thatcher Britain. Stealing a car after drunk alley sex becomes a rape, Johnny flees Manchester for the big city to reunite with his ex, Louise (Lesley Sharp). After spurring Louise and seducing her skid row roommate Sophie (Katrin Cartlidge), Johnny stalks the back streets with a prophecy of doom and seeks release through pleasure and/or pain. He passes through encounters with various characters living on the fringe while the depraved landlord of Louise's flat lurks in the periphery of the story.
Sharp-witted and depressive, an idealist on a nihilistic jag, Johnny is the most memorable character either Thewlis or Leigh have been involved in during their careers. Leigh has even said it’s the great tragedy of Thewlis's career that he hasn't found a role on par with his role in Naked.
Suffering from headaches and mood swings, Johnny makes acquaintances with a lost Tourettic drifter played with relish by a young Ewen Bremner and a night-watchman Brian (Peter Wight) loafing through a steel and glass complex containing 'empty space'. Enjoy the following exchange between Johnny and Brian:
Johnny: And what is it what goes on in this post-modern gas chamber?
Brian: Nothing. It's empty.
Johnny: So what is it you guard, then?
Johnny: You're guarding space? That's stupid, isn't it? Because someone could break in there and steal all the fuckin' space and you wouldn't know it's gone, would you?
Brian: Good point.
Johnny wanders off in pursuit of various women for comfort before the skies darken, and after searching for it, he is beaten up twice by toughs. Meanwhile, Jeremy the landlord skulks into Louise's flat and ruthlessly exploits Sophie before many of the characters come crashing back home.
Although made by a former theatre/TV director and having a protagonist spot-on for an existential novella that might have hindered it in other hands, Naked’s success on the screen is due to the confidence of the actors’ time spent on improvisation and rehearsal before filming. Also benefiting the film is Dick Pope's lighting, capturing the zombified pale faces of Londoners in winter and the grey concrete of their uncompromising city. And of course, as mentioned, David Thewlis is excellent as that loud cock-eyed man you have likely avoided looking at on the subway while he's stared intensely at you.
I hadn't seen Naked in 10 years, and I loved it on my first viewing. But after watching it again certain issues arise. First, Jeremy is a lousy antagonist whose bouffant hair and tantrums I interpreted as commentary about the class disparity between his acceptable upper-class sadism and Johnny's invisible working-class instability. In hindsight, Jeremy doesn’t come across so much as a privileged, systemic monster, but as an unruly, spoiled child.
Another problem is the overwrought nature of the characters with the actors and script playing up the emptiness of their lives, the Armageddon of a generation saying "fuck it" and the creators trying too hard to capture that voice. There is nothing wrong with a film engaging the company of unpleasant humans, but after hearing many of Johnny's rants the movie often slips from truth into pretension.
These issues aside, Naked is worth seeing for the early ‘90s urban decay, the chemistry between the actors and the push it gave Mike Leigh towards the likes of the great Topsy-Turvy and Secrets and Lies. And if you would like to spend the night with one of God's angry children, give Travis Bickle a pass and eavesdrop on this lone British madman.
Naked is available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection.