Sometimes you end up picking a movie for Criterion Month that makes you question why you chose it in the first place, or even why someone would want to tell this particular story. I asked both these questions while watching Naked, although the first question was easy to answer, as I’ve seen a number of Mike Leigh movies and liked every one of them that I’ve seen. So even though I watched half of Naked in college and found it pretty offputting, I still felt compelled to finally watch all of it, since it’s often regarded as one of Leigh’s best films. Also, I just figured my younger self was too dumb to comprehend it. Well, over a decade later, I still have a hard time wrestling with this one, since it has to be among the bleakest movies I’ve ever seen. And yet because Leigh is a director with such specifically-designed characters, you still can’t take your eyes off of Johnny, even if he is at the end of the day, a miserable twat.
From the get-go, our protagonist is someone that you have to struggle to empathize with, because the first time we see Johnny (played by David Thewlis), he’s raping a woman in a dingy alley in Manchester. After the woman runs away and Johnny is chased by her family members, he steals a car and makes his way to a humdrum part of East London. There, he goes to the apartment of an ex-girlfriend named Louise (Leslie Sharp), though he at first spends more time with Sophie (Katrin Cartlidge), as they eventually have some pretty rough sex, where we do in fact see David Thewlis naked. Then when Louise gets home, she isn’t terribly happy to see the shaggy, unemployed Johnny crashing at her flat, so she sends him off into the streets to wander.
From there, the film is mostly a series of different interactions between Johnny and various people he meets while walking around and smoking an unbelievable amount of cigarettes. Perhaps the most memorable of these is with an overnight security guard who lets Johnny into his building one night and they have a long drawn-out conversation about the existence of god. However, one of the characters that Johnny encounters, a man who hangs up posters on city walls, beats Johnny up, which leaves him hobbling back to Louise’s place. While Johnny is having his own dingy adventures, we also follow another depraved sicko, Sebastian (Greg Cuttwell), who is a yuppy misogynist who also turns out to be Louise’s landlord. They all end up back at Louise’s flat after Sebastian rapes Sophie, and then Johnny talks about returning to Manchester with Louise, though ends up taking her money and fleeing.
So yes, this is a movie with more than one rape scene. And my biggest question to this fact was basically “Why?” I know there is perhaps some value in making a film about the brutality of the world, and the fact that women are constantly treated terribly by men, whether they’re down-on-their-luck lowlifes or slick businessmen. But that doesn’t make it any easier to watch. Also, while the women characters are pretty fleshed out and have a decent amount of screen time, they are awfully passive toward their male abusers, which just makes their whole situations seem incredibly sad. I know this is probably what the movie is going for, but man, it does not make for a fun time.
Even though I’m left asking what the point of the movie’s depictions of misogyny are, it’s pretty hard for me to just write the film off as hating women. Mike Leigh has a pretty good track record of bringing great female characters to life, considering the next film he made was about an intense mother-daughter relationship (Secrets & Lies) and he also went on to make the abortion drama Vera Drake. And it’s not like the movie paints its despicable male characters as heroes either; it just shows you how desperate people can be when they’ve got no money and no hope of a brighter tomorrow.
This gets at another thing that makes the movie a little hard for me to wrap my mind around, which is that a lot of its bleakness seems to be a commentary on post-Thatcher Britain. Having not lived in Britain or having that deep a knowledge of UK politics makes it a little harder to appreciate the film’s bleak tone, since the early ’90s were mostly seen as a pretty vibrant time for American culture, even if the post-Reagan era similarly had an element of poor people being left behind. But it seems that a lot of the acclaim of this film has come from the way it captures a particular moment in Britain, but I just can’t really speak to that since I barely lived through that time, thousands of miles away, so the film just feels like misery without context.
That said, as much of a bummer as this movie is, it’s certainly not without its redeeming qualities. First of all, David Thewlis is pretty mesmerizing as Johnny, which is unsurprising considering it’s the role that more or less made his career. In Mike Leigh’s signature method, he worked with Thewlis to develop the character out of improvisations they had before molding the character’s dialogue into a script. I’ve always appreciated this method because it results in films that are so character-driven that it feels like whoever the main character is dictates the tone and feel of the film, almost like the character itself is directing the movie. Of course, Johnny has a worldview that feels endlessly cynical, yet he still has a bizarre charm and a disarming interest in other human beings. Again, I still grapple with why Leigh necessarily needed to let this character tell his story, since he is ultimately a degenerate scumbag, but it’s undeniable that he’s a character that gets stuck in your head, whether you like it or not.
Anyways, that’s it for me this Criterion Month! Next year I’ll be sure to actually pick some newer movies so I don’t get done a week before the month is through.