Judge Joe Armenio kept his clothes on to write this review.
Our review of Naked (Blu-ray) Criterion Collection, published July 6th, 2011, is also available.
"Have you ever seen a dead body?"
Mike Leigh's Naked (1993), as both Derek Malcolm and Amy Taubin point out in their booklet essays here, is unique among the great British director's films in that it's primarily about individuals rather than a family unit. I'd argue that the absence of family isn't simply a fact about the film but its main theme. Most of its characters are either literally homeless, on the run, or subletting apartments usually occupied by someone else. The protagonist, Johnny (David Thewlis, Life Is Sweet), and his ex-girlfriend, Louise (Lesley Sharp, Vera Drake), long to escape their isolating urban lives in London for their hometown of Manchester. Johnny vehemently rejects the society that has caused this isolation (the film is implicitly a critique of Margaret Thatcher's England, although her name is mentioned only once, obliquely), developing an apocalyptic worldview and a singularly corrosive manner, taking out his rage at his isolation and alienation on the women who surround him. Naked was denounced by some critics for its "misogyny" upon its release, but such critiques are simple minded, suggesting that the presence of misogynistic acts in the film necessarily entails an endorsement of them. Leigh is far too complex a filmmaker for that; Johnny is hero and villain and neither, a man who is both fascinatingly prescient and troublingly deluded, both self-aware and oblivious, horribly cruel and with the potential for great kindness.
Facts of the Case
Our first glimpse of Johnny is stark and startling, captured in a memorable image by cinematographer Dick Pope: he's in a dark alley, engaging in sex that may or may not be consensual with an unidentified woman. When she protests and threatens to have him beaten up, Johnny steals a car and takes off for London, where he hopes to stay with Louise. When he gets there, he casually seduces her vulnerable, promiscuous, drug-addicted roommate Sophie (Katrin Cartlidge, No Man's Land). He soon tires of her and takes off into the London night; the second act of the film traces his encounters with a homeless Scottish couple, a lonely security guard, and a shy waitress, among others. After being roughed up, he stumbles back to Louise and Sophie's apartment, where he meets their sadistic landlord (Greg Cruttwell).
>From the plot line and setting of Naked, one would expect a work of grimy social realism, but what makes the film much more than a genre piece is the way its darkly realistic milieu exists in tension with elements of the grotesque, stylized, and parodic. Johnny, as portrayed by Thewlis, is a larger-than-life character, ragged, intense, talking in virtuosic, abusive bursts of wordplay, jokes, and allusions to high and low culture (apparently he makes a lot of references to British children's TV, although this American wouldn't know that if it weren't for Thewlis and Leigh's commentary track; these nods to pop culture enhance a sense of ambivalence in Johnny, a man who both despises his culture and is immersed in it). Some of the film's set pieces strike a marvelous tone of combined despair and dark comedy; the scene in which Johnny helps a belligerent, homeless, barely comprehensible Scottish man find his girlfriend is a small masterpiece of miscommunication.
Of course, the most outlandish character is the film is Greg Cruttwell's Jeremy (a.k.a. Sebastian Hawks), a violent sadist with a smugness more pure than any ever captured on film; it's a risky directorial move to create a character so one-dimensional, and Cruttwell pulls it off with a memorably intense performance. Through Jeremy, Leigh is making a point about class; Johnny is powerless man who takes out his frustration and his need to assert dominance on the women who are attracted to him, hiding his essential vulnerability with an elaborately cocky mask, while the rich Jeremy needs no such subterfuge and feels no ambivalence about asserting power. He simply takes what he wants, calmly, and brutally.
Johnny and Jeremy do meet late in the film, but their encounter is anticlimactic, as if Leigh is interested in their parallel paths and not the ways in which they might intersect. The only character who engages Johnny on an intellectual level is the security guard he meets while wandering the London streets (Peter Wight); he inspires Johnny's most prodigious rant in the film, a discourse about the links between consumerist society and the coming apocalypse that is both learned and nutty in the manner of all eccentric autodidacts. If Leigh's treatment of the film's women is at all disappointing, it's mainly because none of them really engage Johnny on the same intellectual level; Louise treats his ideas with bemused tolerance, while Sophie deludes herself into thinking them kindred spirits. But this is a minor complaint; both Sharp and Cartlidge do excellent work here, creating characters whose lives seem to extend beyond the confines of the movie.
Criterion has done its typical excellent job with the transfer; the 2.0 Stereo sound is flawless, the image clean and sharp. The extras are intelligent and informative. The audio commentary, which features Leigh, Thewlis, and Cartlidge, was recorded in 1994 (I'd imagine for a laserdisc edition of the film, although Criterion doesn't say so specifically). Cartlidge died in 2002 at 41, so it's a rare and melancholy experience to hear her talk about the film. Speaking so soon after the film's release, they have a lot to say about its mixed reception, and defend their film eloquently; Cartlidge was a talented and dignified actress, engaged in creating a memorable character, and to suggest that Leigh's work with her was exploitative or misogynistic seems fairly ridiculous. All three also have plenty to say about Leigh's unique working method, which is usually described too simplistically as "improvisatory." There are, in fact, very few on-camera improvisations in a Leigh film; rather, the actors develop their ideas through long improvisatory rehearsals, during which they work out their characters' histories. The improvisations are then trimmed and refined to create the script.
On ths second disc, director Neil LaBute (In the Company of Men) discusses the impact that Naked has had on him; it makes sense that LaBute is a Leigh fan, since he is also known for making corrosive, darkly funny films which showcase ensemble casts; he doesn't have much to say here that's particularly new or interesting, focusing on the ways in which Leigh creates the feeling of urban isolation and develops "characters that are profoundly interesting." Much better is a half-hour BBC program from 2000 in which Leigh is interviewed by British author Will Self. Self is clearly a very knowledgeable fan of Leigh's work, and makes the striking comparison of Leigh and the great Irish novelist and playwright Samuel Beckett: both, he says, are artists who create very detailed physical environments for spiritual and metaphysical ends (this is, I think, another way of describing the tension between the realistic and the exaggerated and parodic in Leigh's work). Self and Leigh talk about Naked for a good part of the program's running time, and also discuss Leigh's ideas on the concept of community, and the relationship of his Jewishness on his work (Leigh's films have never treated Judaism as an explicit theme, but he says that his sense of the absurd and feeling for outsiders come at least partially through his Jewish background).
Finally, Criterion has given us The Short and Curlies, a short (17 minutes) Leigh film from 1987, featuring Thewlis as a nerdier, jollier variation on Johnny, a young man who talks in a steady stream of puns and corny jokes; his attempts to woo Joy, a young woman who works in a drugstore (Sylvestra Le Touzel), are intercut with scenes featuring Joy with her garrulous hairdresser Betty (Leigh's wife, Alison Steadman, Life Is Sweet) and Betty's sullen daughter Charlene (Wendy Nottingham). The film is notable for its tone of seamlessly combined sadness and humor, and its ability to create rounded, vital characters in a mere 17 minutes; after seeing Naked, it's also wonderful to see a character who could be Johnny's cheerful cousin.
Naked is a highlight in the careers of both Leigh and Thewlis. I keep wanting to use the word "vital," but it describes the film better than any other. Twelve years after its release, the controversy surrounding it seems beside the point; it's an angry, passionate film that contain a multitude of ideas and point of view, driven by the fervent desire to record particular ways of being in a particular time and place, and to reduce it to a single message or statement about gender relations is both unfair and kind of silly.
Good stuff. Criterion has done it again.
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary by Director Mike Leigh and Actors David Thewlis and Katrin Cartlidge
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