Written and directed by Mike Leigh, an unemployed Mancunian vents his rage on unsuspecting strangers as he embarks on a nocturnal London odyssey. Starring: David Thewlis, Lesley Sharp, Katrin Cartlidge, Greg Cruttwell, Claire Skinner, Peter Wight, Ewen Bremner and Susan Vidler.
There’s an exclusive school of directors who can make films where the destination or how long it takes to get there doesn’t matter in the least, it’s purely about the experiences in between and Mike Leigh is top of the class. Naked is a perfect example of that, it’s not concerned with where Johnny (David Thewlis) will end up but focused on the huge variety of different people his eccentric charm attracts. This film is a particularly superb example of dialogue, it’s fast, it’s witty and extremely satisfying to watch at play. While the dialogue may be fast, the pacing of the film itself is much more patient, it flows from moment to moment as Johnny does, wandering the streets. There’s a definitive oddness and harshness to it, it’s undoubtedly dark and yet it still manages to hold a sincere charm. It’s compelling and gripping, the sharpness to it never lets up but as it moves, a softer side does gradually appear which then doubles down on holding your attention.
A lot of credit goes to Thewlis for pulling off what should theoretically be an utterly detestable character but his portrayal makes him inescapably intriguing. He’s a classic case of both hiding behind his eccentricities and of undiagnosed mental health problems. Johnny is intensely vulnerable, with nothing tying him down and a reluctance to ever let anything do so, he’s a loose cannon with nothing to lose. It’s an unsurprisingly committed performance from Thewlis who has always excelled at intense characters. He’s then supported by a character who’s almost the opposite of Johnny, Louise, played by the wonderful Lesley Sharp, who’s calm, stable and reliable. She gives a surprisingly emotional, clever and layered performance, which comes out of its shell later in the film when she gets to take a bigger bite out of the story. Katrin Cartlidge also gives a performance that’s so overflowing with energy and emotion, it makes you exhausted even thinking of how she pulled this off. Her character is overtly sensitive and so desperate for affection that any rebuke is a strike to her heart and Cartlidge portrays that well.
One of the interesting and possibly divisive points of this story, is its relationship to the issue of rape. It would take a very long essay to dive into the different perspectives but put simply, it does what many others of the same time don’t, it explores the power element to rape and assault. Not just the violence but the psychological element of how rapists make their victims feel powerless and prevent them from feeling able to fight back or that people will believe them. It may still make some uncomfortable but it’s a rare case of where rape doesn’t feel simply used as a plot point in twentieth century cinema. It’s exemplified by the character of Jeremy (Greg Cruttwell), who has serious Patrick Bateman energy and is devastatingly aware of the power his wealth and physicality affords him and regularly uses it against women who have no recourse against him; particularly in how poorly police dealt with rape cases in the 90s.
All of that is then perfectly highlighted by Mike Leigh’s directorial work. Leigh is exceptional at building what is typically a mundane, everyday palette, using drab colours but then building up the details to balance that out. What that achieves is an atmosphere which is all too aware of the sadness this story holds but manages, along with its sharp-tongued dialogue, to keep a high energy. It uses the melancholy edge but never falls into a pit of despair. It’s a highly unusual air to build successfully but here it’s done effortlessly. The 4K restoration only adds to the mix, highlighting superbly that level of detail and bringing a more rich texture to the visual.
Naked is one of Mike Leigh’s finest films, it’s filled with fantastic writing and directed in a way that does it justice. It never shies away from the violence and harshness of its story but also doesn’t try to cheapen them by aiming for shock or surprise. It’s instead an intensely realistic portrayal lead by a very compelling, career highlight performance from David Thewlis and well supported by the typically underrated Lesley Sharp. It’s gritty without going too far, the dialogue barely takes a breath and it genuinely makes it difficult to look away, even if you occasionally may want to.