As the title suggests, Naked (1993) directed by Mike Leigh and winner of best director and best actor at Cannes Film Festival, is a raw, stripped down and unflinching look at the human condition. It offers a vulnerable portrait of those who do not conform to the parameters set down by society – outcasts who wander the streets like nomads in search of something they will never find. They exist just beneath our notice because we cannot – or do not want to – understand them. Yet notice them we must, when they behave like Johnny.
In a tour de force performance David Thewlis plays Johnny, a character who jumps right out of every scene and grabs you by the throat. His intense energy, bitterness, brutality and intellect demand your attention. He is the premiere example of an anti-hero. He is someone you loath but are inexplicably drawn to, like a moth is drawn to the flame that will mean its own demise. He is someone you scorn, judge and pity all at the same time. His personality clashes with the very fabric of the culture and society that surrounds him. Everything – from his appearance, with his malnourished physique, greasy hair and unkempt mustache, to his behavior, attitude and treatment of others – makes it impossible for him to fit into the “civilized” world. Similar to the character Suttree in the Cormac McCarthy novel of the same name, Johnny is someone who has the capacity to do anything but has apparently chosen to throw it all away. He has a brilliant mind, filled with revolutionary ideas and thoughts which he freely shares with everyone he meets (whether they want to hear it or not). Yet there is a huge conflict between his brutish, almost animal behavior and his sharp intelligence. It is this contradiction that makes Johnny and Suttree such interesting protagonists and makes their stories ultimately tragic. Johnny goes down as one of the loneliest protagonists to ever grace the silver screen. His mind is trapped in some self-made prison that does not allow him to fully venture outside himself or connect with anyone in any sort of meaningful fashion. Though he walks crowded streets, speaks with strangers and sleeps with various women, his mind remains in solitary confinement.
Without any dialogue or explanation the film starts with Johnny having violent sex with a woman in a dark alleyway before fleeing the unnamed British town for an equally cold and dreary London in a stolen car. This is how we are introduced to the film’s protagonist. Mike Leigh’s films are known for studying the human condition (Secrets and Lies (1996), All or Nothing (2002), and Meantime (1984) to name a few). He is fascinated with all the incongruities that the human race possesses; including our motivations, lusts and oddities. The film features a very loose script which allows the actors to improvise. This comes across a great deal in Naked. The film often feels like organized chaos; a stitched together mosaic of seemingly unrelated events and conversations that miraculously come together to create a bleak look at the pains of being human. This free form style means that no other director or selection of actors could have made the same film. Naked feels unique, a film that is truly the sum of all its parts.
Though Thewlis’ raw performances take center stage, Mike Leigh’s masterfully subtle direction cannot be overlooked. For this film he created a complex cast of characters all forced together like cell mates, their proximity is their only real connection or value to one another. They are all damaged and lost in their own unique ways. During the course of the movie, Johnny interacts with a handful of fellow lost souls including: his former girlfriend (Leslie Sharp), her punk/goth roommate (Katrin Cartlidge, sadly now deceased) and their sadistic-masochistic landlord (Greg Cruttwell), a philosophical night guard (Peter Wight), a suicidal alcoholic older woman (Deborah MacLaren), a lonely and conflicted young waitress (Gina McKee), a drunk young man (Ewen Bremner) who is desperately and loudly looking for his girlfriend and the drunk’s girlfriend (Susan Vidler) whom Johnny meets later the same night. Johnny seems to seek them out, wanting to spend time with them, hoping that conversation or sex will fill a few vacant and lifeless hours. But whenever someone tries to make a connection or shows him the slightest bit of kindness, pity or empathy he lashes out: physically and/or verbally. This pattern provides him some small respite from his frenetic mind until he inevitably and abruptly departs, returning to the vast and lonely world of the streets. It appears that sex, substance abuse and violence are the only ways Johnny can feel anything in a world that leaves him numb.
The film’s cinematography is not revolutionary or innovative but it fits the mood and themes of the film perfectly. The sets are dark and feel cold and lifeless. The characters are “naked,” exposed to the harsh world around them. The beauty of the cinematography and set design are in their simplicity. It feels like we are seeing the world through Johnny’s eyes, a place where he does not belong and where beauty doesn’t exist, nor love, friendship or happiness; only cheap imitations. In some films the visuals are just as important as the characters. In this film the cinematography backs up the themes of the film without distracting from the performances. Any feelings Johnny has are rare, fleeting and soon forgotten. Johnny throws himself violently at life hoping to find something or someone who will make him whole, but this is only a false hope, a dream.
Mike Leigh made a very interesting choice in leaving the film’s beginning and ending open. The film is only a small glimpse of Johnny’s life. His future is just as much of a mystery as his past. We never discover what made him the way he is. It’s natural to want to know more. We suspect that he was severely “damaged” by something in his past, leaving him broken and past the point of repair. What makes this film truly one of the greatest films ever made on the human condition is its excellent cast of actors who gave some of the best performances of their careers and a director who knew how to keep the plot and cinematography simple enough to let them shine through.