Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Film reviewers are evenly divided between those who can't stand Mike Leigh and those who think he's the best thing happening in the British cinema. Naked is about the kinds of people left behind by social progress as the nation nears the 21st century, a permanent underclass no longer trying to compete in the system and incapable of seeing any good in the world. His main character Johnny is a selfish scavenger who gets by on his charm and wits while continually expounding his bitter theories to all who will listen. Johnny's existence is a perpetual present-tense hustle, even though he lectures a man for five minutes on his theory that the present does not exist, as it is just the future continually becoming the past.
Vagrant Johnny (David Thewlis) runs from Manchester to take shelter with Louise Clancy (Lesley Sharp), an old girlfriend now living in London. A voracious reader, Johnny never spends more than a few hours in one place and is constitutionally motivated to provoke and disturb people. When Louise comes home, she finds Johnny already getting cozy with her roommate, the needy Sophie (Katrin Cartlidge). But he soon tires of them both and starts 'doing the town': Haunting the streets to find various other indigents and teen runaways to regale with his unending stream of opinions and philosophy. A long encounter with Brian, a lonely security guard (Peer Wight) leads him to a woman who undresses in a window (Deborah MacLaren) and a potentially interesting girl in a café (Gina McKee). Meanwhile, Louise's abusive landlord Jeremy Smart (Greg Cruttwell) installs himself in her apartment, demanding sexual favors from the demoralized Sophie. The main tenant Sandra (Claire Skinner) is due home soon ...
At one point in his travels Johnny finds a copy of Homer's The Odyssey and it becomes clear that Mike Leigh's aim is to create a portrait of modern Man lost and searching for his way home. Instead of struggling against outside dangers, Johnny rails against the world and everything in it, reserving an especially vile attitude for those who dare attempt to be cheerful in his presence.
Johnny is bearable as a protagonist only because Naked sticks with him long enough for us to appreciate his compexity. Johnny is pathologically gregarious. He strikes up conversations with anyone who will listen, and anyone who listens becomes an immediate target for his criticism and scorn. Johnny is both intelligent and articulate - when he goes on five-minute rants about the impending apocalypse or the pointlessness of the space program, he actually has plenty to say. If only the world Johnny holds in so much contempt was worthy of his wisdom. He's forever on the run, looking for an easy mark while avoiding becoming a victim of the streets.
In one strangely poetic episode, Johnny delivers his entire philosophy of conspiracies and the apocalypse to a lonely security guard he accompanies through an empty, immaculate office building. He's wholly convinced of his intellectual superiority and glowing with an idealism that emerges only when he's arguing some abstract point of logic. The obvious therapy for this man is to get him a website to create a blog opinion page.
Naked's character relationships are almost completely dysfunctional. Johnny finds his way to the apartment of his former lover Louise, seduces her roommate Sophie and then sulks when Louise returns wondering what's going on. He's not interested in committing himself to anyone and lashes out at any attempt by others to establish meaningful contact. Yet he's capable of extending feelers of tenderness and compassion when he needs company. Sophie is emotionally defenseless under her tough lady act but Johnny couldn't care less. He frequently becomes hostile during lovemaking, turning consentual sex into something akin to rape. As the film doesn't openly condemn or punish this behavior, Naked was charged by several critics as condoning it.
Johnny only picks on women too weak to resist his teasing come-ons ("I guess you think I'm too cheeky, eh?"). Louise has invested a certain amount of affection in him, and poor Sophie falls head over heels. Neither of them can defuse his essential rage. They're so empty and desperate that they fool themselves into thinking he'll blossom into something worthwhile.
As if Mike Leigh's bleak outlook needed darkening, a secondary plot thread introduces Jeremy Smart, a truly hateful misogynist and sexual thug who asserts his manhood by humiliating and insulting his dates in public, and abusing them in bed. He's Louise's landlord, and when Sophie runs into him at the apartment, she caves in to his demands for sexual favors simply because he expects them. The only stand on principle taken by any of the harassed characters is when Louise makes the landlord back down by threatening to castrate him with a carving knife. Compared to Smart, Johnny is a bon vivant.
One has to be a patient individual or particularly interested in outlaw characters to see that Mike Leigh's film is more than a just a scattershot condemnation of the quality life for English have-nots. Restless and searching, Johnny's mean little lifestyle is a rebellion against everything, a slacker's refusal to play the game. His women yearn to form relationships or to at least find a little peace of mind, but Johnny isn't having any. He's the mirror image of society reduced to one man - selfish, aggressive and aloof to anyone's needs but his own.
Criterion's DVD of Naked is a stunning enhanced transfer shot in an intriguing style by Dick Pope. It resembles an early 70s grunge look but without the excessive grain, and with far better color.
The extras arranged by disc producer Kate Elmore examine the film from several angles. The first disc offers Leigh, David Thewlis and Katrin Cartlidge on a full-length commentary, and the original trailer that affects an art-house sell. Disc two has a BBC television show with author Will Self interviewing Leigh at length in a London pub. And director Neil LaBute analyzes Naked in a new interview featurette.
An extra short film is Mike Leigh's 1987 The Short and Curlies, a comedy that shows David Thewlis in an earlier and lighter mode. An insert booklet has thoughtful essays on Naked by film critics Derek Malcolm and Amy Taubin.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Supplements: Audio commentary by director Mike Leigh and actors David Thewlis and Katrin Cartlidge; video introduction by filmmaker Neil LaBute; The Conversation, a BBC program with author Will Self interviewing Leigh; Original theatrical trailer; Essay by film critic Derek Malcolm
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: September 12, 2005
Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson