When people talk about Mike Leigh’s Naked, the conversation is inevitably focused on David Thewlis’s nerve-shredding, tour de force central performance as the callous drifter Johnny, who slices through life like a straight razor. Yet consider how impossible his high-wire act—full of virtuosic, tongue-twisting diatribes and apoplectic mannerisms—would be without the characters that satellite him. There’s the loutish Scottish lad, played by Ewan Bremner, he meets on the street, whose Tourette’s-like bursts of anger make Johnny’s social instability seem tame by comparison. There’s Peter Wight’s intellectually curious but befuddled night watchman, whose passivity gives rise to Johnny’s most infamous monologue, about the nigh end of the world. And, of course, there is his ex-girlfriend’s downtrodden roommate, Sophie, played by Katrin Cartlidge, whose emotional fragility Johnny ruthlessly exploits—disdain just seems to be part of his nature. A self-made victim, Sophie does drugs and chases after abusive men; that she is the closest thing to a sympathetic figure among Naked’s main characters is revealing about the extent of the damage in the world Leigh wishes to depict.
As Sophie, Cartlidge seems to withdraw from the camera, but by some actorly alchemy, this only makes her more captivating. She was expert at commanding the screen with the subtlest of gestures, as evidenced in such brilliant roles as the war photographer Anne in Milcho Manchevski’s Before the Rain, the deranged protagonist’s wiser sister in Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves, and the trapped high-end prostitute in Lodge Kerrigan’s Claire Dolan. Since Cartlidge died tragically in 2002 at the age of forty-one due to complications from septicemia and pneumonia, the international film community has been mourning the loss of one of its least predictable, most uncompromising actors. Naked remains a strong testament to her remarkable talent—her performance in it is nonchalantly devastating, a scream that comes across like a whisper.
With her downcast, darting glances and inward-directed nasal voice (often when she’s delivering her lines, her mouth seems barely to move, like a ventriloquist’s), Cartlidge makes Sophie Naked’s most baleful creature. She’s swathed in gothlike clothes (holey fishnets and black leather jacket) that she uses as both shield and tool for sexual flirtation. Look at the way she stealthily pulls on her sleeves, shortly after she meets Johnny—who shows up on her doorstep looking for his ex—baring her shoulders to the stranger in a passive-aggressive come-hither manner. It’s nearly a reflex: in the presence of a man, even this rotter, her instant impulse is to make herself vulnerable rather than to steel herself. Sophie will make the worst possible decision in any scenario, but Cartlidge presents these choices as the natural processes of a complex mind, even if it’s one defeated by circumstances, economic and otherwise. Sophie is no mere drip.
Naked was Cartlidge’s first major film role. Leigh had seen her perform onstage and was impressed by her instinctual brilliance: the North London native had no formal training as an actor aside from a stint with the Royal Court Young People’s Theatre, yet had forged a strong reputation in the theatrical community. She dove enthusiastically into the Mike Leigh method, which involves an unusually long rehearsal process, in which the actors live for many months in character, workshopping the script through improvisation sessions with the director long before the cameras roll. She was fiercely committed, as Leigh recalled in a tribute he wrote for the Guardian, and had a unique and detailed approach to her work. “Despite her inspired, genius ability to lose herself in the character and to behave as an actor should,” he wrote, “she also had the objective eye of an artist. For that is what she was, in the broader sense of the word, and in the way that most actors are not.”
What’s most arresting about Cartlidge’s embodiment of Sophie is the way in which this intelligent actress so convincingly blunts her natural wit and perceptivity, creating a character immune to reason. Sophie is, one might casually say, clueless. Cartlidge makes her obliviousness funny, at times, but also heartrendingly poignant. Her free-floating nothingness (a product of living in an unmoored world—immediately post-Thatcher London—gone to shit) is the antithesis of Johnny’s overflowing existentialism. She’s too empty, he’s too full; it’s unfortunate that they can’t complement each other. Thewlis’s Johnny is too caught up in his own head to make that tragedy palpable for viewers. It’s Cartlidge who can bring the tear to your eye. In the following scene, she and Johnny start their untenable pas de deux—it’s the beginning of a very unbeautiful friendship.