At Cannes, Mike Leigh and David Thewlis were named best director and best actor for their ferocious contributions to the aptly titled Naked, which Leigh also wrote. (His script was skeletal; much was improvised during rehearsal.) This is Leigh’s harshest, most combustible film (although Leigh is wrong that it, or anything else he has done, is unsentimental), and his aggressive, intelligent, disillusioned, self-loathing, somehow charming Johnny will likely remain the performance for which we best remember Thewlis, who was also named best actor by the London critics and, in the U.S., the New York critics and the National Society of Film Critics.
Those who retain even a scrap of affection for either Margaret Thatcher or her successor as British prime minister, John Major, need not apply. Leigh’s film allows the viewer to gauge the degree to which these two transformed the United Kingdom into a social sewer breeding maggots, rage, hopelessness. It is therefore disheartening that some reviewers take Naked for a character study. If Johnny has “mental problems,” they are a social consequence; they are not the cause of his predicament.
The film covers three days in Johnny’s life; they begin at night in a Manchester alleyway with sex so rough it might be rape. (Subsequent sex in the film, presumably not rape, is just as rough.) Regardless, Johnny flees for London in a stolen car he has stumbled upon, landing in the sublet flat of former girlfriend Louise, who is away at work. But at home is Louise’s flatmate, Sophie (ill-fated Katrin Cartlidge, terrific), whose masochism proves a perfect fit for Johnny’s sadism. Sex between them becomes foreplay for Johnny’s abandonment of fragile Sophie for a night of wandering and various encounters that compose the film’s most brilliant stretch—a down-the-rabbit-hole into abrasive, heartrending reality rather than symbolical fantasy. Homeless in London (as Sophie also will be), Johnny meets a homeless Scottish couple and, of course, women, one of whom takes him home. Johnny’s celebrated encounter, though, is with a man, a nightwatchman as philosophical as he, who takes him on a tour of the building he guards: a faux-domain that suggests how close to homelessness this gentleman is. Visually, the two contrast: the guard, clean and neatly dressed for work; jobless Johnny, unwashed, scruffy, a mutt. Johnny, at 27, is young, but he looks, as someone notes, 40.
Johnny returns to Louise’s just in time for the leasing party’s return and the separate departures of Sophie and Louise. Like John Ford’s Ethan Edwards, Johnny will “wander between the winds”—or, rather, limp, the result of an assault by toughs as angry and dislocated as he. Once, the camera at his back recorded his flight from Manchester to nowhere; the famous last shot finds the camera withdrawing as Johnny, having stolen money from the flat, hobbles ahead to nowhere. It is the fate of a nation that a sharp turn to the right has tragically engineered.
Depressing; powerful; essential.
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