Canon Entry - Naked (1993)
Inspired by the 1001 Movies to Watch Before You Die, Edgar Wright’s 1000 favorite films and other lists, I am striving to come up with my own personal canon of films.
Mike Leigh is famed for being a very collaborative director. All of his films are the result of months of improvisation and rehearsal from the actors. He finds the story with them, creating the script as his process unfolds. What emerges are some of the most potent films with some of the best, most naturalistic performances I have ever seen from any director. HIs actors do not perform their characters so much as embody them. As a result of this collaborative process, the performances tend to be uniformly excellent, with a few true standouts. Think Lesley Manville as an older somewhat desperate woman looking for love in Another Year. Or Sally Hawkins’ preternaturally optimistic Poppy in Happy-Go-Lucky. So nothing that I had seen so far in Mike Leigh’s work could prepare me for Naked and the thespian hurricane that is David Thewlis.
The film opens on an aggressive sexual encounter between Johnny and a married woman in an alleyway. The sex quickly devolves into rape and Johnny is run of town. He makes his way, somehow, to his former girlfriend Louise, also from Manchester, and has a tryst with her irresponsible party girl roommate Sophie (Katrin Cartlidge). He soon tires of her, and he spends one long night wandering through London, inserting himself into the lives of random people including a Scotsman with a tic, a security guard, a lonely exhibitionist, a girl from a cafe, and one very irritated painter before eventually making his way back to his former girlfriend’s flat.
As you can tell, the film does not have much of a plot. It doesn’t need one, with a character like David Thewlis’ Johnny at its center. He is a shambling mess of a man, barely held together by drugs, vinegar and chutzpah. His thick Mancunian accent gives his grand proclamations an almost comic self-importance. Even though he is abrasive and treats nearly everyone around him horribly, especially woman, he is still charismatic. He has a way with words and has a fair measure of wit for those astute enough to get it.
We never learn what has made Johnny this way. Critics have suggested that the film is a reflection of post-Thatcherian society, which disenfranchised the poor and working class to benefit the wealthy and powerful even more. I am no expert in English history, but I can realize that Johnny’s ire can be directed at anything. Anger only needs the slightest of reasons to exist, and his rage could be spiritual, mental or a combination of both. His obsession with the apocalypse and fortune telling is a desperate grasping for sanity and clarity in the intellectual morass of society that he is all too aware of. We don’t ultimately know what he is raging against though, and that’s fine.
What we do get is a very good glimpse into his mind. The whole film seems to have been filtered through Johnny’s pessimistic eyes. Thanks to Dick Pope, cinematographer for this film and long-time Leigh collaborator), the film is a gorgeous palette of blacks on blacks. Even when it is light, there is a wintry pall that is even more unforgiving than the darkness in which most of the film is dressed with. Pope and Leigh know that black has the potential to be a truly rich and evocative color scheme to work with, and while I wouldn’t want to live in the world that Johnny clearly inhabits in his physical and mental reality, i could marvel at this film all day (or night, rather).
Some critics have compared Johnny to Hamlet. The comparison is certainly apt. He dresses in black, is hyperarticulate and learned, yet “has that within which passeth show.” He also dominates this film to the point that I sorely missed his bilious presence when he wasn’t on screen. Take for example, the side plot with Greg Cruttwell as a rich, misogynistic prick. I found his story a little out of place, and while he gives a good performance, I felt he was in a different movie. Perhaps he belonged more in the world of American Psycho, bro-ing around with the likes of Norman Bates. However, his presence is important because it casts a bleak light on the women who exist in this world.
I had said earlier that Thewlis dominates this film to the point that it’s hard to see this as a truly collaborative project. I will have to qualify this statement somewhat because of the women’s performances. I firmly believe all the women in this film could have had Mike Leigh epics written about each of them. Some of them have more obvious stories that could be explored such as the woman Johnny and the security guard peep on. My favorite performance other than Thewlis’ would have to be Claire Skinner as Sandra, the nurse roommate who had been on holiday to Zimbabwe, leaving her “less put-together” roommates behind. When she comes back, it is clear that she is just as damaged and empty as Johnny or most of the other characters in this film. Her obsession with the cleanliness of the apartment and the overwhelming urge to expel what does not fit into her worldview smacks of an extremely petty but recognizable desperation. I could have easily watched an entire film about her.
Naked is certainly not a joyous film, but I found it thrilling. Not in a conventional sense, but I was thrilled because I could see that a master was at work in Mike Leigh, Pope, Thewlis, I felt that I was really witnessing a character’s journey through Hell, a journey that I seriously think is on par with Orpheus’ descent for his Eurydice or Dante’s trek through the vast realms of human depravity. Sometimes, it is only through immersing yourself in darkness that you can dare to try to understand it.