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Naked is the angriest, most bitterly critical attack on the false values of society that Mike Leigh, Britain’s constant chronicler of the tragic comedy of desperate lives, has ever made. Its audacity is that the attack is mounted through a central character of whom few would approve. Johnny (David Thewlis) is, in fact, a classic antihero, who blasts away at the hypocrisy inherent in the Britain of the immediate post-Thatcher era much like a latter-day version of John Osborne’s Jimmy Porter. Yet such is the power of the film that Leigh is also able to include, without in any way seeming to placate his audience, moments of compassion, gentleness, and humor, which prevent Naked from seeming merely a bilious, if gloriously eloquent, rant. It is not just that. In fact, it is one of the greatest, most memorable, if decidedly uncomfortable, British films not only of its decade but of the entire second half of the twentieth century.
Yet there are still people who mistake it. I have heard it said that Johnny is Leigh himself in another guise, and that the film’s misogynist tone and occasional parodic elements show the flaws of the director rather than his virtues. But this is to look at the film through dark glasses, unable to see its many subtleties: the sometimes cruel but more often sympathetic comedy of characters who, unlike Johnny, cannot express what they are feeling; the way even those with the smallest parts are so precisely observed, like the weeping young woman whom Johnny virtually rapes before he sets out for London. This is undoubtedly the result of the long periods of rehearsal, during which Leigh’s actors refine their parts until a formal screenplay, written by Leigh, can be agreed.
Great films, of course, don’t have to be flawless in order to be elevated into that category. And Naked is not that. At times, it seems to focus too much on Johnny and not enough on the women with whom he associates. It can also, indeed, come off as a bit of a rant. But it is not what it appears to many of those who prefer High Hopes, Secrets and Lies, or Vera Drake, each of them about the deep ties of family. It is not, that is, bereft of ideas of human community. Most of Leigh’s films have a family at their center, not an individual, and that is one of their strengths, because they show how we behave not just toward those we know a little but toward our nearest and dearest. Naked is not like that. But it is surely about people who need and lack a family, and who either cannot find their roots or are constantly in retreat from them.
But is Johnny, the clearly well-educated but despairing Northerner who comes down to London on a kind of odyssey, to find an ex-girlfriend, Leigh in disguise? In one way, perhaps he is, since all Leigh’s films have an auto-biographical element built into them, if not in a literal sense. That’s the way he makes them, forged painstakingly from his own experience or, more often, his own observation, allied with that of his actors. But, as he has said, Johnny isn’t him at all; he may, though, Leigh has added, be a kind of exorcism of parts of himself, made in full maturity and reflecting some aspects of his youth.
Is the film misogynist? No, because it is as deeply critical of the men as it is of the women, who seem to haunt Johnny but can never satisfy him, any more than he can satisfy them. The late and much lamented Katrin Cartlidge’s put-upon Sophie, the girl Johnny finds drugged up in his ex-girlfriend’s London flat, almost appears to seek what she gets from Johnny and Greg Cruttwell’s balefully repellent, sexually predatory landlord. She is as desperate as Johnny, without the capacity to understand the reasons for her unhappiness or, even if she could, to explain it in words. This film has also been criticized for its parodic moments, the critique going that it is those Leigh likes least who get parodied (in this case, the middle-class landlord), thus stacking the odds in favor of those to whom he is more sympathetic. But, pessimistic as Naked undoubtedly is, and made during an era in Britain with which Leigh had little political sympathy, its parody doesn’t seriously weaken it.
Ultimately, Naked is not so very different from Leigh’s other films—all his movies are, he correctly says, fish from the same sea, with many of the same preoccupations about family, class, and the desperation of impoverished lives. What distinguishes it from the rest (up until his latest, Vera Drake) is its focus on a central character on a journey, perhaps to find his true self, perhaps to find a wider world than the one that forged him into the bitter outsider he has become. What he discovers is a Britain where, in Margaret Thatcher’s own horrifying words, there is no such thing as society. Johnny, like everyone else in the film, is out on his own, plunging about in a darkness much akin to anarchy. It isn’t a world that any of them, not even the intellectually probing Johnny, can deal with satisfactorily. Which brings us back to the importance Leigh attaches to family, to roots, and to some kind of corporate identity.
Another difference between Naked and Leigh’s other films is the way, and the scale on which, it was made. It is almost as if a blank canvas has been scrawled upon by an artist moving heaven and earth to broaden his boundaries and define his work—to paint a portrait of an England in thrall to totally inhibiting values and the effect that can have on individuals. It was certainly the most ambitious of his films up until then.
Dick Pope’s eloquent cinematography and Andrew Dickson’s bass-and-harp soundtrack show that Naked can’t be said to be solely the product of one artist. But if it belongs to anybody but Leigh, it belongs securely to Thewlis, whose performance in the incredibly taxing part of Johnny surely deserved the Oscar he never got. He saw Johnny not just as an antihero but as a man who exemplifies the many people who have both a repellent and an attractive side. He is screwed up because he knows, deep down inside himself, that he can be hateful, but, when he seeks to change by trying to connect with others, something invariably prevents him. He is indeed naked, and no briefly comforting female arms can assuage that feeling for more than the most fleeting of moments.
Watch and listen to the long scene where he converses with Peter Wight’s security guard, who spends much of his nightly vigil spying on a woman across the street, and you will see the best of both Thewlis and Leigh. It’s an extraordinary episode and a tour de force of direction, writing, and acting. Played out within the cold expanses of an empty building at night, it has Johnny explaining himself not so much to the guard as to himself, and the guard likewise expounding on his own troubles. It is, in fact, less a conversation than a spoken, and visual, commentary on two people leagues apart but united in their lack of fulfillment.
But do not suppose you are about to see a film that will send you scuttling for the shelter of a nice, easy bit of Hollywoodana. Here’s Johnny’s answer to the girl who asks him how he got here (meaning London, from the North): “Well, basically, there was this little dot, right? And the dot went bang, and the bang expanded. Energy formed into matter, matter cooled, matter lived, the amoeba to fish, the fish to fowl, the fowl to froggy, the froggy to mammal, the mammal to monkey, the monkey to man. Amo, amas, amat, quid pro quo, memento mori, ad infinitum, sprinkle on a little bit of grated cheese and leave under the grill till doomsday.”
What a patronizing bastard! But quite entertaining, don’t you think? That’s the thing about Naked. It’s an impressively serious film but it understands that you can actually laugh at its skewed world too.
Derek Malcolm was film critic of the London Guardian for thirty years and is now film critic of the London Evening Standard. He is honorary president of the International Federation of Film Critics (FIPRESCI) and president of the British Federation of Film Societies. He has also directed the London International Film Festival and been a governor of the British Film Institute. This piece previously appeared in the Criterion Collection’s 2005 edition of Naked.