It is a timeworn critical cliché to describe a city in a film as a character in itself. However, as one supporting player in Mike Leigh’s 1993 Naked remarks, “a cliché is full of truth, otherwise it wouldn’t be a cliché.” Leigh’s London, then, is certainly a strong persona in the film, and a nasty piece of work at that. It is a forbidding presence, all cold shoulders and sharp elbows, sucking in waifs and strays from across the nation, and failing to offer its myriad miserable inhabitants a crumb of comfort.
One of those inhabitants, playing opposite the city, is the lanky, disheveled drifter Johnny (David Thewlis)—imagine Scooby-Doo’s Shaggy as conscripted by Nine Inch Nails—who begins the film by sexually assaulting a woman in a Manchester alley, then fleeing down the motorway to the capital, where he lands at the apartment of his ex-girlfriend (Lesley Sharp) and two other women. A centrifugal whirlwind of autodidactic intelligence, sandpaper sarcasm, and rank misogyny, he can barely be contained by his claustrophobic surroundings, disappearing into the London night for an odyssey of desultory encounters that will occupy the majority of the film’s running time.
Leigh’s vision of London is intimately aligned with the psyche of his untethered protagonist. Naked goes on to play fast, loose, and poetic with geographical verisimilitude in a way that evokes Johnny’s inner volatility. His first stop, though, is instantly recognizable as Soho, a central London district long known as a scuzzy hotspot of jazz clubs, strip joints, and record shops. (It’s also where the Mancunian Leigh’s production company, Thin Man Films, is based.) After a stroll, Johnny finds a resting point in a doorway that belongs to Lina Stores, a real-life deli on Brewer Street that was established by Italian immigrants in the 1940s. Remarkably, in spite of the aggressive gentrification and redevelopment that have transformed Soho into an increasingly sterile parade of pricey boutique clothes shops and bistros, Lina Stores is still standing in 2017—a fact that affords the ensuing scene a greater emotional charge.
Into frame wanders a young, clearly disturbed man screeching the name of his lost girlfriend (“Maggie!,” a sly reference to the recently deposed prime minister Margaret Thatcher), while Johnny gazes on, bemused. The man, Archie, is brilliantly played by Scottish actor Ewen Bremner, who would soon go on to embody an even more pitiable wastrel: heroin-addicted Spud in Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting (1996). Archie spots Johnny crouched in the doorway and brusquely demands a cigarette. And so begins an exchange that is at once bitterly amusing, desperately melancholic, and ultimately unresolved: a microcosm of the film at large.
Much of the scene’s dramatic force stems from Leigh’s esoteric preparation process, in which actors meticulously improvise and rehearse their characters for months, without the aid of a script, before finally locking down concrete structure and dialogue. One early rehearsal of this scene, played out in public, resulted in the men coming to blows after Thewlis brandished a screwdriver and waved it at Bremner. Onlookers believed the confrontation to be genuine, and Leigh had to intervene, but not before police arrived. On the Criterion commentary track, Thewlis remarks, “It would have been great if we had been arrested, because it would have been a fictional character in court.”
The scene carries a rivetingly authentic feel, fostered both by the performances and Dick Pope’s fine cinematography, which alternates between documentary-style surveillance, when the two men are in one place, and intimate mobility, when they wander around together down Oxford Street, a major West End thoroughfare that appears spookily deserted here. It’s not all grit either—deliberately stylized compositions featuring mirrored reflections and neon signs all contribute to an atmosphere pregnant with unease.
Despite this discomfiting mood, the scene is among Naked’s funniest: a semi-screwball mini-picaresque involving two men who don’t even begin to understand each other. Archie’s Edinburghian brogue is almost indecipherable to Johnny (and perhaps to American audiences), while Johnny’s razor wit bounces off Archie like a tennis ball off a wall. Only once does Johnny’s chiding resonate with Archie, and it nearly earns him a black eye. Significant too are Johnny’s attempts to engage Archie on the topic of predestination via his discussion of the work of sixteenth-century physician Nostradamus. Archie, of course, couldn’t be less interested, but it’s the first inkling we get of Johnny’s deep-set fatalism.
Most crucially, the scene subtly underscores Johnny’s contradictory nature: he’s an expert at alienating people in his own theatrically vicious manner, yet he shows genuine compassion toward Archie—and, in the following scene, Maggie—of his own volition. The below clip closes with a beautiful shot of Johnny, back against the wall of Lina Stores, visibly furious at himself, perhaps for letting slip that he has a kind side to his character. The tragedy of Naked is that Johnny, hopelessly adrift in a London that barely knows or cares whether he exists, is never able to sustain the glimmers of compassion that flicker intermittently during this memorable sequence.