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Naked is a 1993 British film directed by Mike Leigh. Before this film, Leigh was known for subtler comedic dissections of middle-class and working-class manners. Naked was more stark and brutal than his previous works. Leigh relied heavily on improvisation in the making of the film, but little actual ad-libbing was filmed; lengthy rehearsals in character provided much of the script. Almost all of the dialogue was filmed as written. The film received largely favourable reviews. After a sexual encounter with a married woman in an alley in Manchester turns into a rape, Johnny (David Thewlis) steals a car and flees for Dalston, 'a scrawny, unpretentious area' in the east of London, to seek refuge with his former girlfriend, fellow Mancunian Louise (Lesley Sharp). Intelligent, educated and eloquent, Johnny is also deeply embittered and egotistical, fighting and provoking anyone he meets in order to prove his superiority.
Back in 1993, the film was one of the first I tried to professionally review. I never did write it. I fell asleep in the movie theater. In 1998 I tried to watch it again on video. I awoke to static late that night after the tape ran out. I'd zonked out right on the couch.
Why does Naked have this particular effect on me? We'll get to that in a moment.
Anyway, 2005 brings us the inevitable: A Criterion Collection release of the film on DVD. It had to happen. After working through low-budget flicks and British TV, Mike Leigh made his name with Naked, and he's since earned a whopping five Oscar nominations for films that few people have seen. So here we see the turning point in a career, a true watershed movie.
Whether it's any good is the subject of some debate.
Naked introduces us, with little exposition, to the wonderful, horrible life of Johnny (David Thewlis), a borderline bum (he hasn't showered in a week) that we first see raping a girl in a Manchester alley. When, surprisingly, she doesn't find this agreeable, Johnny steals a car and escapes to London, where he spends a couple of days becoming engaged in minor and major altercations with people who don't find his presence tolerable. Mostly he talks. My how Johnny can talk. Johnny is an existentialist of the purest form: He's very well-read and, since he's utterly destitute, he's given up on life. Johnny will talk to anyone he meets, and inexplicably, everyone is willing to listen. He starts with Louise, an (unlikely) ex-girlfriend with whom he crashes for his first night.
But before Louise even gets home, he's bedded her roommate Sophie (Katrin Cartlidge, putting on the strangest voice acting I've ever seen, barely moving her lips when she speaks), who instantly declares her love for him. By nightfall, Johnny is wandering the streets again, and he ends up hanging out with a borderline-Tourrette's-addled loser (Ewan Bremner) and talking his way into a vacant office building being guarded by a lonely nightwatchman (Peter Wight). After leaving there, he somehow talks his way into the home of the woman who the nightwatchman spies on late at night, confident that the guard can see him fooling around with his long-distance love.
Meanwhile, the film tracks Johnny's opposite, a yuppie scum named Jeremy (Greg Cruttwell). Jeremy is so odious ('Hope I haven't given you AIDS.') that Cruttwell has scarcely worked since Naked was released. Somehow we know he'll end up running into Johnny -- they're both rapists, after all, but Jeremy is a rich rapist -- but how this turns out won't be revealed until the end.
131 minutes of bitter misanthropy might be too much to bear, but Naked has finally grown on me to the point where I can appreciate the wit in many of Johnny's soliloquys. The best is near the beginning, a response to 'How did you get here?' Answer: '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, to fish to fowl, to fowl to frog, to frog to mammal, the mammal to monkey, to 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.'
Never mind that no one could possibly think that fast -- not even a grimy bum -- it's still amusing, provided you can keep up with the rapid-fire language and the very thick British accent.
What's Leigh trying to get at with all this? The world is falling apart, and only by observing it from the very bottom can you make any sense of the thing. Unfortunately, Leigh offers no answers, only the most bitter of cynicism and criticism. Even Trainspotting told us to 'Choose life.' Naked tells us to abandon all hope, that doomsday is near (even predicting a date in 1999). That may well be true, but Leigh's film isn't really the black comedy it pretends to be: Comedies are funny. Naked is bleak.
The DVD includes a commentary from Leigh, Thewlis, and the now-deceased Cartlidge, plus a BBC program about Leigh.