Criterion // 1993 // 131 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // July 6th, 2011
Mike Leigh's 1993 masterpiece.
"You can't make an omelet without cracking a few eggs. And humanity is just a cracked egg. And the omelet stinks."
We're first introduced to Johnny (David Thewlis, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban) in a dark alley in London, where he is having violent sexual relations with a woman. After the rough sex transforms into something nonconsensual, Johnny flees the scene, steals a car, and begins a series of dark, troubling misadventures. Over the course of a brief period of time, Johnny will reignite old relationships, briefly insert himself into the lives of others and carry on philosophical conversations with strangers.
The manner in which writer/director Mike Leigh creates his films is endlessly fascinating. He gathers together a group of actors, gives them a theme to work with, and then asks them to improvise on the idea. That's where some adventurous directors stop (mockumentaries like Best in Show and The Grand come to mind, as do experimental indie films like Julian Donkey-Boy), but it's only the beginning of Leigh's process. He takes inspiration from observing the improv sessions and then proceeds to craft a detailed screenplay based on what he has witnessed. This method of screenwriting has produced an impressive string of thoughtful, detailed films with an almost unparalleled level of fine-tuned character observation.
Leigh has always had a gift for capturing those elusive traces of human behavior that seem to slip between the cracks in so many other films, and his acclaimed Naked delivers an examination of some particularly unnerving traces. This is a dark, emotionally punishing film that explores the lives of impoverished characters who are experiencing various stages of desperation. This is a world defined by dimly-lit rooms, unwashed hair, drugs, tears, anarchic cackles, bruises (emotional and physical), violent coughs and angry, uncomfortable sexual encounters.
Ah, but I've made the film sound as if it is merely an endless catalogue of despair. That's absolutely true to a certain extent, but I haven't yet mentioned what a funny, entertaining piece of cinema Naked is. Leigh somehow finds a way to wring immense comedy out of these situations in a manner which never makes light of the awful situation these people are in. There's so much caustic humor to be found in the dialogue, particularly when Johnny fixates on a person or topic and keeps pushing whatever notion he's come across to its conclusion.
Speaking of which, Johnny is one of the great cinematic figures of the 1990s, a character instantly believable and yet like no other silver screen protagonist I've seen (though I'm not sure that protagonist is the right word, given that "antagonistic" is arguably the most succinct way of describing Johnny). His looks reflect his social standing: stringy hair, an unkempt mustache, uneven stubble, clothes that are occasionally surrounded by invisible wavy stink lines, and darting eyes that fire potent shots of accusation, inquisitiveness and paranoia. Under this shabby facade is a fiercely intelligent thinker ("fierce" is another word that sums up so much of Johnny's persona) whose memorable rants comprise so much of the film's running time.
David Thewlis is hypnotizing in the role, arguably the finest of his career. He delivers Johnny's tirades with the urgency of a doomsday prophet (including one rant actually predicting the forthcoming arrival of the apocalypse; a stunning tour-de-force of acting and direction set within the confines of an empty hotel) in a manner persuasive enough to make you believe that the end is really near. Thewlis and Leigh do something fascinating with Johnny's intelligence: they use it as an ironic liability of sorts. Johnny is too self-destructive to stand a chance of escaping the hellish world he lives in; a position many of the characters find themselves in. However, Johnny is arguably the only one savvy enough to truly understand the inescapable nature of his life and the inevitable doom on the horizon. Rather than shrinking in misery, he lunges forward into the abyss with all the unstoppable, chill-inducing might of a freight train carrying a large supply of nitroglycerin.
Naked arrives on Blu-ray sporting a very impressive 1080p/1.85:1 transfer. While the film has an intentionally grubby, grimy look, it's been beautifully-preserved by Criterion and benefits from exceptional detail and depth. This is a considerable asset during the scenes that take place in dark, murky areas, which might have been too indistinct otherwise. The pale, clammy flesh tones are accurately captured and the occasionally suffocating sense of cinematic claustrophobia can be better appreciated than ever before. Audio is also solid, with clean, sturdy dialogue and the striking harp & bass score (which underscores the film with the subtle insistency of an undertow) is particularly strong. Sound design is minimal, but what's here is well-captured. Supplements are ported over from Criterion's previous standard-def release: a commentary with Leigh, Thewlis, and Katrin Cartlidge, an interview with Neil Labute, a British television interview with Leigh, Leigh's 1987 short film "The Short and Curlies," a theatrical trailer and a booklet featuring essays by Derek Malcolm and Amy Taubin.
As the liner notes point out, Naked is a great film but not a flawless one. The character of Jeremy doesn't quite work for me; an on-the-nose contrast to Johnny that represents Leigh's attempt to make a statement about wealth and social class. The basic idea is sound (Jeremy's wealth permits him to dispose of the humanity that allows us to maintain some measure of affection for Johnny), but the execution is a little forced. In addition, most of the female characters feel a little short-changed despite the fact that the actresses have put a great deal of work into making them three-dimensional individuals.
It's also worth noting that some feel the film is misogynist due to the fact that it paints a rather negative portrait of its female characters. I would argue that it paints a rather negative portrait of humanity as a whole, and also note that depicting misogyny in a film (which this film most assuredly does) is not the same as making a misogynist film.
It's a little troubling to hear people talk about Mike Leigh as if he is a creator of quiet, subtle little character studies. He is not given enough credit for the level of raw emotion and cinematic vitality that he brings to his films, and Naked remains a startling reminder of his greatness. Criterion's Blu-ray release is well worth picking up.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 2.0 Master Audio (English)
Running Time: 131 Minutes
Release Year: 1993
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Short Film