It’s about masks, it’s about the thing we are forced to be, that society expects us to be. The tension between that and what’s behind the mask. All the characters in my films who are dealing with pretentiousness.
— Mike Leigh to Will Self (2002)
I think it’s a very probing dissertation on relationships… about the way that we interact with people, the way in which people, particularly in a city, find themselves so isolated.
— Katrin Cartlidge, Commentary, Naked
I sent off for one of those linguistic packages, “Talk Shite in a Fortnight.” It’s all going very well. I haven’t quite got the hang of the transitive verbs yet.
— Johnny (David Thewlis), Naked
“A line ultimately is a prop. You have something to say… I think the great screen actors are great at reacting… It’s really in that small behavior that you begin to see how clever his performance is. The idea is to create characters that nobody has seen, that nobody else has created.” Mike Leigh says this to Neil LaBute, his interviewer for Criterion’s excellent edition of Naked.
A hard movie, in the sense that it’s difficult and also harsh, Naked is unsettling, often extremely funny and sometimes bizarrely brilliant. It is still, some 12 years after its release, quite devastating. Like other movies by British writer-director Mike Leigh — Life is Sweet (1990), Secrets & Lies (1996), Vera Drake (2004) — it’s a close look at class conflict, sexual insecurities, and identity anxieties in working class England. This look is disturbing, not least because it doesn’t avoid the product of class frustrations, a young man so angry and so self-hating that he’s willing to hurt anyone to make himself seen.
Naked is driven, pretty much at full throttle, by its central character, Johnny (played with alarming genius by David Thewlis, of whom Leigh says, “David Thewlis just erupted in this part, and it’s indelible, the mark that he made”). He’s a drifter, reckless and mean: the first image we see is created by a hand-held camera raggedly approaching what appears to be Johnny’s rape of a woman in an alley. She screams and pulls away: he runs off, steals a car, and drives from Manchester to London while the credits roll, under threateningly monotonous theme music. (In a 1994 commentary track, made for Criterion’s laserdisc edition, with Cartlidge and Thewlis, Leigh describes the first moment, camera careening to the assault: “Straight in, a handheld tracking shot, the cameraman Dick Pope running. We all run towards the action. It’s important here to set up for the audience the worst possible picture of this guy, whoever he is.”)
Johnny’s sudden, awful appearance at an ex-girlfriend’s apartment leads to escalating chaos, a series of violent and disturbing intersections between characters. That these intersections seem both random and associated with Johnny underlines the film’s smart interrogation of cause-and-effect. Johnny acts out of a grim lack of explicit malice or motivation: that there’s no particular reason for his abuse of the ex-girlfriend, Louise (Lesley Sharp, whom LaBute calls “the unsung hero of that particular film; she’s so real, and so good, you can feel the pain of seeing Johnny again”), or her roommate Sophie (the late, much-missed Katrin Cartlidge) appears to fly in the face of the rules of “character development.”
Much has been made of Leslie and Sophie’s abuses, by Johnny and their horrific landlord Jeremy (Greg Crutwell). In a sort of defense that says as much about context as it does effect, LaBute says,
At the time, when the film came out, [Leigh] had charges of misogyny leveled against him, not unlike some of the things that were said about the film that I did in 1997, In the Company of Men. And I think in both cases, it was kind of unfounded… Particularly, in Naked, the treatment of women is seriously looked at. I think it would be very hard for anyone to honestly say that he’s creating something that is not true. Not true in the sense that it happens. That people, both men and women, are often mistreated in relationships.
It’s true that Johnny is cruel and Sophie seems battered, but there’s something else at work here. As pathetic and pathological as Johnny so obviously is, he’s also in pain. Worse, for all his brilliance and wit, he’s also unable to say what he means or what he wants. When, on his arrival on her doorstep, Louise asks, “How did you get here?”, he runs through the big bang theory, from initial explosion to amphibians to apes. Exasperated, she recognizes that nothing has changed since she last saw him when they both lived in Manchester.
And yet Johnny is seductive to a variety of people, from a nighttime security guard who lets him in out of the cold (Johnny asks what he’s guarding in “this postmodernist gas chamber”; the paunchy divorcee answers simply, “space”) to Sophie, tentatively thrilled and then afraid when their sex gets rough. Preying on lonely people, afflicted with time and emptiness, Johnny is the loudest and most abrasive sufferer of all.
Thewlis describes the film as concentrating “on a particular kind of disenfranchised people, people cut adrift from their families, people who are alone in the world. That needn’t necessarily be a particular symptom of the ’90s, it’s always been the case that there’s always been these people who are lost and drifting.” As Johnny embodies this drifting (and rails against “the ubiquitous barcode”), he performs himself as mean and focused. This performance affords the film its moments of acute, even dire, comedy; these are somewhat unnerving in themselves, since what’s funny always has to do with his abuses of other people, for instance, a homeless Scotsman with a weird head-twitch and absolutely no sense of irony. It’s difficult to watch these scenes without disgust or a twinge of guilt.
Some scenes feel so lived-in, so awkward and surprising, that you imagine they’re improvised. Discussing his reputation for working with actors on his scripts, Leigh says,
Each scene, of course, in the film, in all of these films, is evolved from improvisation, from elaborate improvisation, eventually distilled down and whittled down to its absolutely precise scripted structure and accuracy. I personally don’t really like improvisation on camera. It doesn’t happen at all in this film.
In fact, the point-counterpoint of Johnny and Jeremy seems quite set up. Jeremy’s introduced as a monied, less intelligent version of Johnny’s boorishness. Leigh consistently makes the upper classes the butt of bitter humor, and Jeremy is no exception: at first the cuts to him disparaging his date at a restaurant or elsewhere are just distracting; they interrupt the energy that Johnny’s story is accumulating. But soon Jeremy becomes overwhelming; he invades Louise and Sophie’s apartment, claiming he’s a friend of their absent roommate, Sandra (Claire Skinner). His brutal rape of Sophie makes Johnny’s previous viciousness look almost benign, especially as it’s crosscut with his being thrown out of yet another woman’s home. And her tearful rage becomes yet another point of comparison to Johnny: she’s dreadfully inarticulate in the face of his ongoing vile chatter.
Slithery like a lizard, Jeremy doesn’t quite fit in Naked, except that his appearances make you wish that Johnny would show up on screen again. Strolling about the women’s apartment in his black bikini underwear, Jeremy threatens to smash them up against walls for no reason at all. Johnny, meanwhile, is beaten by a squad of street punks; his return to the apartment, bloody and bruised, exhibits his utter victimization, and makes you wonder about your own response to it: how can you feel badly for a man like this? Thewlis notes that as he was supposed to wander through the street, essentially looking for trouble, he came to feel strangely “liberated”:
Lots of times, I’d be found yelling in the street, which is very liberating, to actually just go out into the street and scream and rant and abuse people verbally. Because normally we don’t do that in life. We want to be liked and fit in with a certain code of behavior. And I was given license, in fact I was paid to behave in that way. And it’s a great opportunity to have, to lose your inhibitions in that way, and get up and scream a bit.
Johnny’s beating also brings to the surface another point, that victimhood is an arbitrary, unchosen, always miserable condition. Johnny remains despicable, but next to Jeremy, he’s nearly sympathetic. And that’s an alarming in itself, and makes you think again about how you align yourself with movie-characters.
Aside from this comparison of evils, the film makes another, more complicated point about social injustice and its gendering (it’s infinitely worse in this world to be weak, to be a “woman”). It’s not surprising that Johnny’s fury is exceedingly misogynistic. Less clear is how the women might respond in any rational way: they are, after all, surrounded. Their attraction to Johnny drives Naked‘s cultural analysis, its depiction of systemic abuses, a system marked by an imbalance of power between victims and aggressors. But this is a decidedly disturbing premise: rape is the film’s central metaphor, its most prominent and repeated image. Johnny is an offensive representative of even more offensive conditions, a man too hard to die and too thoughtful to survive unscathed.
“What makes people angry,” says Cartlidge on the commentary track, “I think is that the world of Naked, the frame around the particular world that Naked is exploring, actually exists and we all are responsible for that world, and there is no getting away from it.” She’s right. While it’s foregone that Johnny is irredeemable, Louise tries anyway, somehow nostalgic for their long gone year together. For a moment we see her reading James Gleick’s Chaos, suggesting she’s aware of the network of incoherence that’s pushing Johnny to such extremes. She understands that she won’t make contact except momentarily. Yet theirs is an excruciating exchange to watch. They’re both so desperate.