With DT-like wobbliness, the camera happens upon an alley, deserted aside from a few wet reflections of pasty yellow from a nearby streetlamp and two adult waifs screwing against a brick wall. The lens teeter-totters closer to the couple as, apparently, perfunctory passion turns to violence turns to the voiding of consent—not only on the part of the female being gripped unkindly by the male’s calligraphically thin arms, but on the part of the audience, who’s no longer observing action, but is now being forced to witness a transaction of sociopolitical advantage. They finish, the woman threatens the man rancorously with a beating from her brother, and both plunge into the surrounding night in opposite directions. The camera trails the man, who, within seconds, has retrieved a knapsack containing his only possessions, and is hurtling out of Manchester, as we later learn, by pinched auto to an ex-girlfriend’s in London.
The above is about as much of an exposition as we get from Mike Leigh’s biliously post-Thatcher—which is to say post-apocalyptic—salvo Naked, a film that effectively consummates the phlegmatic Labour Party politics of the director’s previous work with centripetal aggression. The dramatic impetus limned above is simple enough to be Hitchcockian: A man is carried away by a mistake and flees the scene of his embarrassment to avoid controversy. But the nebulousness of the “rape” and the sinister fear exhibited by this black-cloaked, unruly whiskered protagonist, Johnny (David Thewlis), are interpretative nuisances (of what significance is the inner conflict of a self-destructive character in a landscape already destroyed?) Johnny quickly becomes embroiled in the usual twentysomething mishaps: After arriving in London he sleeps with his ex’s punkish, pot-smoking roommate, then tires of the triangle’s entrapment and sets off on an odyssey through the seventh ring hell of the city’s after hours working class. Throughout, his acerbic, over-educated wit-spittle substitutes as a moral—or immoral, as the case may be—compass. (When the ex questions “how he got there,” he launches into a morbid description of the Big Bang, followed by Darwinian sarcasm, and capped with a Malthusian denouement and a “sprinkle [of] some grated cheese.”)
The movie’s sickly, urban gray-green-and-black color palette (courtesy of Dick Pope), as well as the aimless citizenry that comprises the cast, insinuates an uncluttered legislative thesis behind the grimly rendered world. But unlike Peter Greenaway’s more sturdily allegorical The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, Naked resists one-to-one historical correlations or even cause-related psychoanalytical readings. From the way he spontaneously grunts and clenches his face while moseying up and down stairwells, it’s not hard to infer Johnny’s undiagnosed disorder, but the film is hardly a plea for socialized health care; if anything, Johnny’s unkempt irascibility seems to have been selected by nature as an expedient defense mechanism. Leigh’s screen traffic has political overtones, to be sure, just as it has romantic ones; intimate moments between Johnny and ex-girlfriend Louise (Lesley Sharp) nearly classify Naked as a breakup film. At the smoldering core, however, Naked is most indelibly a complexly loving humanist polemic scrawled in piss and vinegar.
Prior to Naked, Leigh’s cinema was one of incisive communalism, whittling sociological arrowheads either out of exemplars of uptight trends (the hilarious Nuts in May) or portraits of the interpersonal effects of economic malaise on impromptu families (Bleak Moments). The density of Naked, however, is oriented entirely around a single character who’s neither an efficient “everyman” surrogate for our shock at the film’s depictions of crime and penury nor a keen enough spokesperson for England’s seething populations. He’s sarcastic, filthy, sneering, intelligent but paranoid, capriciously helpful and resentful. And the remainder of the characters are essentially well-wrought foils that tease out Johnny’s dizzying mercurialness.
Sophie (Katrin Cartlidge), the disheveled roommate of Johnny’s ex, becomes a tool with which to perform carnal amusement and possibly rile the ex’s jealousy; later, when it’s clear that Johnny has no feelings for her, Sophie becomes distraught to the point of vacating both the apartment and the narrative. Then there’s the steely, affluent predator Jeremy (Greg Cruttwell), who offends and gnaws at the faces of women in a subplot that collides viciously with the primary one; his undeserved, unexplained wealth and repugnant demeanor suggest that as hateful as Johnny is, there are more severely inhumane culprits with more power in this environment. And when Johnny tours London’s underbelly, he plays part anthropologist and part soothsayer to the mottled throng; an uncontrollably flinching Scot hunting for his girlfriend funnily brings out the former, while a kindly, portly night watchman (Peter Wight) provokes the ferocity of the latter. In another, semi-satirical sequence, Johnny startles a chauffeur from napping and is invited into the posh car until the driver realizes—without, remarkably, any visible emotive shift on the actor’s part—his error. Johnny’s appearance and demeanor curdle the milk of human kindness, even if they resist demonization.
Indeed, there are those who will stop short of demonizing Johnny and those who see in him a frenzied funhouse mirror. Despite our differing approaches to intercourse, there are discomfiting similarities between the manner in which Johnny and myself are socially “received,” though I imagine that most intellectual misfits can parse themselves in some fashion through Thewlis’s performance. The film clearly wants us to internalize Johnny’s experiential perspective: The detachedly innocent handheld work of the opening grows slicker and more fluid throughout the running time, and by Johnny’s silhouetted eschatological monologue, the curious, upward tilting angles seem subtly informed by his mania. Some of my own identification might further be arbitrary corporeal congruency; as of this writing I am awkwardly lanky and underweight due to illness, as well as prone to grimacing, with a face and head that sprout unruly tufts of wiry, dirty blond hair. I own a long, black pea coat, and I become darkly anonymous by wearing it.
But part of the ease with which I can articulate a spiritual affinity with Johnny speaks to the character’s archetypal anti-socialism. His proclivity for puns toys with conversation in a manner that flies over the heads of most of his companions. (Upon gripping Sophie’s breasts he whispers, “Thanks for the mammaries.”) He also possesses a voracious curiosity toward that which disgusts him; his fascination with biology and evolution primarily furnishes him with more reasons to condescend to the human race. And he’s unwilling to accept fondness toward his person as anything but fatuous or misleading—and surely anyone who has ever begged off belonging to clubs that would have him as a member can in a sense empathize with Johnny’s desire to denote bombs beneath prospective supporters. Yet there’s also the sense that the above bitterness is a calculated act, or perhaps an appropriation of tendencies outside of Johnny’s control that deserve sympathy—particularly in the tender interactions between Johnny and his erstwhile lover Louise. Upon finding her battered old boyfriend in her apartment, and then being insulted by him directly after arriving home from work, Louise grimly smiles, saying, “I can see you haven’t changed.” Louise’s agency at the film’s end in warding off the gigglingly ruthless advances of Jeremy, who’s revealed as her and Sophie’s landlord, also implies that her passivity toward Johnny’s intermittent abuse is a similarly calculated expression of love—even if it fails to fashion a sustainably dysfunctional dynamic between them.
It’s debatable whether finding one’s self in such pathological fictive constructs has any interpersonal use; I can’t learn from Johnny’s mistakes any more than I can confront my misanthropy through his (non-existent) “redemption.” More than a model for self-empowerment or a cautionary effigy, however, I have recognized the potential of Johnny’s near-fungal lifestyle as a far more potent influence on critical voice. Johnny is, in many ways, a termite critic par excellence. He’s itinerant and weightless. He moves uncomfortably close to handle roughly that which attracts him. He processes all information with shamanic alarmism, fashioning batshit, species-wide conspiracy theories that are either useful subterfuge or clever self-validation for his incessant anxiety. He fetishizes subtext, even in the sense of industrial metropolitan underbellies. (He stops at one random moment to feel the “vibrations” of the city beneath London, one of subways and pipes and other municipal entrails.) He’s both skeptical and open-minded, both pilgrim and untouchable.
But most crucially, Johnny understands that there are pressures both aesthetic and global to which reacting with lucidity is monstrously dishonest. Coherence is the onus of expository text; while the obligation has been long since pulverized by the practitioners of other expressive techniques, critics continue to stuffily cart it about like a pack of pallbearers. Likewise, compared to Johnny’s boundary-chewing animus, the remainder of the world he inhabits appears to be in a state of reflexive mourning: When some thugs beat Johnny up for a passing lark, it feels grossly casual, and even the psychopathic Jeremy appears listlessly supercilious. Johnny, on the other hand, launches into a tirade during one scene at the incendiary suggestion that he might merely be “bored.” The critical impulse is often tethered to a fierce self-destructiveness; at our most useful, we unleash dangerous ideas that are intended, at some level, to be virulently rebutted and scoffed at. Any assessment of the value of these ideas must be structured around their ability to rouse others from torpidity. Criticism, at its most trenchant, stimulates as the at-first-befuddling tug of the hair or the interpretatively panicked blow to the gut. Comfort must be eschewed at all costs, a realization that also befalls Johnny, and quite rudely. His response to that epiphany is a motto ripe for the picking: “I hope that you dream about me. And I hope that you wake up screaming.”
Naked would not be half the achievement it is without Dick Pope's grime-accentuating cinematography and Andrew Dickson's plaintively pulsing score, and the clarity offered by Criterion's high-def upgrade deepens their abetting of Johnny's rampage. One hesitates to call the 1080p transfer "spotless," given the milieu, but the additional lines of detail provide a visceral cleanliness to the pale flesh tones and darkened alleyways. The new restoration isn't notably different in tone from Criterion's original release in 2005, but the boost in resolution further enhances our enveloping by Johnny's perspective. This is a London infested with filth, begging to be put out of its misery.
The supplements are the same as on the 2005 release, with the plum still being the revealing commentary between Mike Leigh, David Thewlis, and Katrin Cartlidge that, among other things, lays to rest a number of myths about the director's putatively "scriptless" shooting methods. In a video interview, Neil LaBute compares Thewlis to Marlon Brando; there's also a decent discussion of the film by Leigh from a 1990's BBC program. Finally, there's Leigh's 1987 TV short The Short and Curlies, also starring Thewlis in a nearly nebbish role that stands astoundingly perpendicular to his turn as Johnny. The context provided by these extras is valuable if only to suggest the studied meticulousness and rare inspiration that bore the masterpiece of Naked into being.
Mike Leigh and David Thewlis's cerebral rape and pillage in the village of Naked peel back the maggot-infested curtain of Thatcher's London to reveal an atom of hope.