Director/Screenwriter: Mike Leigh
By Marilyn Ferdinand
While empires have come and gone throughout the centuries, the first empire to fall after the invention of motion pictures was the British Empire. Films about the age of empire have appeared intermittently over the years; for example, Oscar Wilde’s 1899 comedy of manners The Importance of Being Earnest was filmed most memorably by Anthony Asquith in 1952, perhaps in a fit of nostalgia for a time when life was more orderly and certain.
Certainly, the post-World War II youth in Britain were having few spasms of remorse over the demise of Earnest’s Lady Bracknell and her ilk. Indeed, one of the founders of “kitchen sink” drama, John Osborne, used the name “Lady Bracknell” as a term of derision in his explosive 1956 drama Look Back in Anger. The 1959 film version of Osborne’s play helped kick off a string of films featuring angry young men—mainly decent chaps underneath it all, but embittered by the loss of the social, economic, and moral compasses that had steadied earlier generations—that formed part of the British Free Cinema. This phase of British filmmaking receded after the early 1970s, but young men and women would be angered anew in the Britain of Margaret Thatcher. That anger would find its greatest cinematic expression in Mike Leigh’s harrowing and touching Naked.
The film opens with a bang as it introduces us to its central character, Johnny (David Thewlis), as he is having rough sex against a wall with a woman who is screaming to be let go. As she runs off, she promises to tell her boyfriend what he did—whether it was rape at the start, it certainly is rape by the end, and Johnny steals a car and flees to avoid punishment.
He shows up at the London flat of Louise (Lesley Sharp), whom he dated for a year in their home town of Manchester. She’s not in, but her unemployed, drug-addled roommate Sophie (Katrin Cartlidge) is. She and Johnny drink and smoke dope while waiting for Louise to return. When she does, she and Johnny start sparring, causing her to retreat to her bedroom. Sophie and Johnny have rough sex, during which Johnny repeatedly slams Sophie’s head into the hard arm of the sofa. Unaccountably, Sophie becomes utterly besotted with Johnny, chasing after him desperately until he leaves the flat in disgust and roams through the nighttime streets, where he encounters and engages with various damaged, lost, and lonely people in witty and philosophical banter.
Johnny finally latches onto a man going about his work putting up posters and plastering “Cancelled” signs over others; he becomes annoyed with Johnny’s patter and beats hell out of him. Johnny returns to Louise’s flat, where she and Sophie are being terrorized by a rich bloke named either Sebastian or Jeremy (Greg Cruttwell) who has coerced Sophie into having sex with him, brutalized her during the act, thrown a large wad of cash at her for “services rendered,” and is marching around the flat in his briefs. Eventually, Louise tosses Sebastian/Jeremy out. A reconciliation and return to Manchester for Louise and Johnny seems in the offing.
When looking at Naked, it’s evident that the characters represent various aspects of British society—from its sensible, hardworking backbone played by Lesley Sharp to Katrin Cartlidge’s punk wannabe, to Cruttwell’s callous, entitled yuppie. But Mike Leigh’s famous working method—months of improvisation during which each actor builds a character and relationships with the other characters, followed by setting their work into a fixed script for shooting—allows these types to become fully fleshed individuals we can both loathe and love.
Sharp’s Louise is the round, solid kind of girl all the fellows went nuts over in Georgy Girl (1966); she offers a maternal warmth as well as a no-nonsense attitude toward Johnny’s irresponsible behavior and angry sarcasm. She’s had to run away from him, but she’ll never abandon him if he really needs and wants her. Emotionally, she’s a less masochistic version of Nancy from Oliver Twist. Sophie is almost Louise’s exact opposite. She’s unemployed, a stoner, dresses in tight black everything, and shags at the drop of a trouser zipper. Cartlidge slurs out Sophie’s dialog with a tight, almost motionless mouth, a tricky device for suggesting a literal stiff upper lip against life’s many adversities that only someone as skilled as the much-mourned Cartlidge could pull off without rendering her character incomprehensible.
But this film belongs to David Thewlis. His Johnny is a memorable character for the ages. He’s widely and well read, intelligent and witty, arrogant and misogynistic, and a walking wound. We hate him to start with, watching him raping a woman and then putting two baby strollers into the open trunk of a car and running off with the lot. What kind of a guy does that? He’s insulting in the extreme to Sophie, who’s too dim to know he’s laughing at her, not with her, and Louise clearly has hard feelings toward him when she meets up with him again.
But Thewlis performs a sleight of hand during Johnny’s nocturnal travels that gains our trust and sympathy. He hooks up with a deranged young Scotsman named Archie (Ewen Bremner) who’s bellowing for his girlfriend Maggie and twitching his head violently; we fear Archie will knife him, as he keeps reaching into his back pocket and exploding at Johnny. But Johnny seems touched by the lad’s fear of being lost in London without his girl; later, after Archie has gone off to look for her, Johnny stays put and hooks up with Maggie (Susan Vidler), also looking for Archie, and accompanies her through the tramp-strewn streets until the young lovers are reunited in a hail of punches and obscenities.
Johnny, in turn, is pitied by Brian (Peter Wight), a security guard who is minding the empty building in whose doorway Johnny has sought shelter from the cold. In a peripatetic version of the conversation in My Dinner with Andre, Johnny and Brian make the rounds of the multilevel “space” Brian is guarding and talk about Nostradamus, time, women, boredom, and the Bible. Poor Brian does essentially nothing but look after the unused property of the rich—apparently the sure way to an income in Thatcher’s England—and he has his thoughts and plans to move to a home in Ireland where he lived in a past life. Johnny’s awareness of the state he and the world are in causes him the kind of anger and pain that Brian has anesthetized himself against; the insults he throws at Brian bounce off, and he eventually softens to Brian as well.
The men in this film are exceedingly fucked up about women. Brian, who seems voluntarily celibate since his wife left him 13 years prior, mumbles a lot about the whores of Babylon and seems to have worked at returning to an approximation of innocence. He has watched a woman dance drunkenly in front of a window across the street every night for ages, but when he sees that Johnny has gone over to meet her, he is angry at the thought that the two might have had sex. Apparently, she is his innocent ideal and escape from sexual and romantic loneliness. To Johnny, she’s just a played-out, old souse whose hair he reluctantly stops pulling when she says pitifully, “You don’t have to hurt me.” Sebastian, the least-fleshed character in the film, just hurts the women he entices with his champagne and rich surroundings, and we are left with the strong suspicion that he may kill them as well.
What is all this hatred about? Are women stealing the jobs men like Johnny used to have? Some, perhaps, but Sophie’s unemployed, too, and Louise seems like a glorified file clerk. Is it, then, about the leadership of the county—an old queen who won’t give up her crown to her rapidly graying son and a battle-ax female prime minister without an ounce of human kindness in her broad, but shriveled breast? The angry young man genre trafficks in a free-floating anger and anxiety, a mirror to a pervasive, systemic mood. In its essence, Naked shows up the original angry young men, represented by Johnny (named for John Osborne?), as pale figures when compared with the intensity of the anger at the hoi polloi among the neocons of Thatcher and Reagan.
Leigh’s visual style, captured by his regular cinematographer Dick Pope, is breathtaking and reminiscent of László Kovács’ Heart Beat. The London nightscapes look both dreamy and a day away from apocalypse. Several indoor scenes seem stagebound, as though in homage to Osborne, particularly the extended and wordy conversation between Johnny and Brian. At one point, the pair is shot entirely in silhouette, an effect that returns us from the stage to cinematic virtuosity, showing Leigh’s command of form.
Leigh’s script is a tour de force, with humor and ferocity and complex, philosophical monologues that Thewlis spits out with speed and conviction. I wasn’t enamored of Sandra (Claire Skinner), the third roommate introduced at the end of the film; her dialogue, rendered in halting, unfinished sentences to signal her upset with the condition of the flat and its new occupants, was just a little too cloying. And Sebastian/Jeremy was a brutal stick figure and not worthy of the deeply realized characters of the rest of the film. Nonetheless, these peripheral characters didn’t detract appreciably from the brilliance of the film. The uncertainty at the end of Naked rivals that of The 400 Blows as we wonder what the future will hold for Johnny, and Britain.