Naked is Mike Leigh’s most philosophical exercise in improvisation. It also happens to be a very entertaining tale of the anti-hero and cynicism.
The protagonist, Johnny (David Thewlis), is an upbeat though altogether conflicted man on the run from his native Manchester. After getting himself into a sticky situation, he travels to London and ends up on the doorstep of his ex.
He encounters her roommate, Sophie (Katrin Cartlidge), while she’s at work. He seduces Sophie with negativity, and a shrewd but boastful simplification of existence and purpose. Here we find the first of many examples of Johnny’s philosophical idioms and nagging questions.
When his ex Louise (Lesley Sharp) returns, it’s clear that the two have a lot of resentment towards each other. Louise is irritated by his presence, and Johnny gets the message eventually. He then sets off on a strange nomadic evening through London, unloading his theories onto anyone who will listen. He somehow manages to make more of a mess of his life and everyone he encounters.
We see him grasping for retribution instead of understanding and devoid of empathy. Days pass, and on each one, Johnny is like a wolf who comes to the door. Some welcome the jolt in perspective, and others don’t. Eventually he stumbles upon those who won’t stand to be prodded. Even worse for Johnny, they manifest that conflict physically.
As with any story surrounding the anti-hero, Naked can be a polarizing experience. It would be understandable, though perhaps easy, to detest the main character. Thus rectifying that same disgust with the people who are like him that you encounter in your own life.
These are people who find the need to question everything or psychoanalyze human nature. All the while seeming detached and disingenuous in their efforts.
On the other hand, it is just as reasonable for someone to want to understand his character and even console him. Johnny is quite charming, after all, and director Mike Leigh provides us with a villain to juxtapose his behavior. A man (Greg Cruttwell) whose perspective and actions are nasty in every sense of the word, especially relative to the other characters.
This mirroring of personalities and lifestyles is the essence of the film, and rarely do you see such an example in cinema. At least not one so engaging and easy to recognize.
I’ll be honest, I’m not exactly a fan of Leigh’s early work. He is heralded as someone who paints a unique (though widely unpopular) portrait of England. He’s also seen as a master of improvisation. His films Secrets & Lies, Topsy-Turvy, and Vera Drake are all quite popular and deserving of praise. Yet Life is Sweet and many of his shorts just don’t do it for me.
This film had the potential to disappoint at first; I though it was going to be another dark comedy about Englanders, full of culturally isolating jokes and wry humor. But it was so much more than that and sincerely relatable.
In that sense, Naked seemed to mark a very important directional change for Leigh. He maintained his style, but it’s as if the last scene of Naked (which shows Johnny hobbling down a street at dusk) is a metaphor for a lot more than what is implied. I’d recommend the film to fans of Ken Loach and Danny Boyle.
– Edythe Smith
Originally published for Amoeba Music’s “Movies We Like” blog, Nov. 25th, 2015
“I’ve got an infinite number of places to go, the problem is where to stay.”