UK | 1993 | directed by Mike Leigh
Logline: A homeless man arrives in London where he bothers an old girlfriend, and wanders the streets ranting at strangers, whilst another equally embittered man harasses and abuses women.
“You can't make an omelet without cracking a few eggs. And humanity is just a cracked egg. And the omelet stinks.”
Mike Leigh’s greatest movie, Naked, is a tour-de-force of direction, acting, and writing; the screenplay of which was created mostly from improvisation during an eleven-week rehearsal period. Director Leigh’s original script was only twenty-five pages long and in utilising his renowned in-depth dramaturgy and workshop ethic, he carved a powerhouse narrative about the desolation of relationships and the despair of humanity. A cracked, fragile society desperate for love, starved of affection, weighed down by the burden of urban pressures, maimed by the cruelty set upon each other by each other. Naked is the human soul and its psyche laid bare and scratched raw until it bleeds.
Johnny (David Thewlis in the performance of his career) is on the run. He’s sexually assaulted a woman in a dark alleyway and she’s escaped, screaming bloody murder. He steals a car and high tails it out of Manchester, arriving in London where he makes his way to his ex-girlfriend Louise’s (Lesley Sharp) flat, then abandons the car and waits outside the front door. Louise’s flatmate Sophie (Katrin Cartlidge) arrives and lets him in for a cuppa.
Johnny spouts blackly comic vitriol and pearls of darkened wisdom in equal measure. Sophie soaks it up as it washes over her. Before you can say “cheeky young monkay” Johnny and Sophie are having urgent sex. For Johnny it’s contemptuous release, for Sophie it’s any port in a storm, and she wants this particular wretched boat to stay moored. Louise arrives home from work and is surprised and disgusted with Johnny and her flatmate. Johnny lingers until Louise’s indifference and Sophie’s desperation starts to buckle his patience, and he flees the house.
Johnny encounters various lost souls during the course of his nocturnal wandering and early morning crawl; an erratic young couple (Ewen Bremner and Susan Vidler), a lonely night watchman (Peter Wight), a booze-addled older woman (Deborah McLaren), a pretty wallflower waitress (Gina McKee), as well as an aggressive man postering walls, and an intolerant chauffeur. All of these people are in many ways not too dissimilar to Johnny; lonely, affected, embittered, struggling with their place in society. Johnny manages to charm his way into their lives, but finds himself banished or he becomes frustrated and leaves.
Jeremy/Sebastian (Greg Cruttwall) is a wealthy playboy sociopath (borderline psychopath). While Johnny is weaving his way in and out of London’s back streets Jeremy is worming his way through his own series of dodgy escapades; first he propositions a masseuse, then following a dinner date he leaves with the waitress, and eventually winds up at the flat of Louise and Sophie. It turns out he not only knows Sandra (Claire Skinner), the lease-holder who’s return from holiday is imminent, but is apparently the landlord. He and Sophie have sex and he treats her with contempt and cruelty. Johnny arrives back at the flat having been beaten up by a roaming gang. Jeremy and Johnny share a strange moment of surprised recognition.
There is an underlying sadness that permeates Naked like rising damp. But it’s not a tragedy, although its characters are all inherently tragic, pathetic and/or loathsome. Naked is the darkest of comedies, as pitch-black as smoldering English coal. Johnny is an extraordinary, misanthropic piece of work. It seems he wishes from deep within his bruised and aching heart that the world can be a better place, but his psyche and soul are so damaged he can only find disappointment and spill forth a perpetual cynicism; the centerpiece of his school of thought is his extended stay with Brian, the “insecurity” guard, whom Johnny shares a discourse on the apocalypse.
One of the primary themes of Naked is the failure of human beings to connect, of a basic, almost primal, behaviour based on selfishness. All of the characters presented are locked in their realm of despair and loneliness. Naked portrays a truly lonely planet. Even Louise, the only person in the movie with the capacity for unconditional love is abandoned. Sandra is neurotic, Sophie is pathetic, and Jeremy is evil. Johnny is not quite the anti-hero, more the tortured protagonist, capable of abject antagonism, yet is oddly, grotesquely fascinating, as a result of his searing intelligence and acidic wit.
Leigh’s cinematographer Dick Pope shoots the city in a cold, grim palette, and the characters are dressed in dark hues. A memorable image from the movie that sums up its dysfunctional themes and intent is that of Sophie in black bra and panties straddling Jeremy in black jockeys, hands behind his head, a smug expression on his face, she whipping her long dark hair against his body like a cat o’ nine tails, moaning in submission. It’s both funny and depressing at the same time.
Naked takes no prisoners, makes no concessions, offers no explanations, leaves no excuses. It is a nightmare torn apart to expose the broken dreams of the emotionally fragile and frail. Johnny is an opportunist whose abhorrent behaviour is born from desperation, while Jeremy is a scheming manipulator whose aberrant actions are born from wickedness. I like to imagine a Biblical perspective to the narrative suggesting that Johnny and Jeremy have been kicked out of heaven, holding contempt for God and all of His creation, humankind, but especially women. Jeremy is a demon, Johnny is a fallen angel. Both are in purgatory.
Naked is not a movie specifically about misogynist men, but a movie about the capacity men have for self-destruction and cruelty, and the women who allow these contemptuous creatures to enter their lives. Naked is a movie where optimism has been crucified and human frailty is abused.
Endlessly quotable, blackly funny, harsh, corrosive and deeply resonant; a movie that ages with the tannin of a fortified wine, yet retains the taste of the most bitter pill. A portrait of despair, a study of misanthropy, a disquieting glimmer of humankind’s perseverance in the face of moral decay and low-esteem, Naked is cinema’s quintessential suicidal cry for help. “Don’t waste your life.”
"Resolve is never stronger than in the morning after the night it was never weaker."