Naked (1993): Mike Leigh’s Masterpiece, Starring David Thewlis as Anti-Hero

Arguably one of British director Mike Leigh’s two or three masterpieces, “Naked” is an essential movie of the 1990s.

Set in London, this brilliant and controversial film stars David Thewlis as a charming eloquent and relentlessly vicious drifter. With a virtuoso script and superlative performances by Thewlis and co-stars Katrin Cartlidge and Lesley Sharp, Leighs panorama of Englands crumbling underbelly is a showcase of black comedy and doomsday prophecy. “Naked,” won the Best Director and Best Actor at the 1993 Cannes Film Festival, finds Leigh at the top of his power.

Leighs best films are grounded in Thatcher’s regime of the 1980s and its devastating effects on British economy and society. Through his work, Leigh reflects his disgust and outrage at a social system that had made the rich richer and the poor poorer–what Karl Marx had predicted a century ago. He expresses his critique of the class system with biting, acerbic humor, and irony, the one quality thats badly missing from most American movies.

In his serio comedies (High Hopes, Life Is Sweet) and dark satires like Naked, Leigh displays bitterness and humiliation at the poverty and bankruptcy, both physical and emotional, of the New England. Leigh’s London seems to be the capital of a culture that reflects the new economics and demographics, discrimination against the poor working class and racism against Third World and minority groups. Leigh’s portraits are multi-faceted, showing London in all its crudities and incongruities, though the emphasis is on Citys ugly, sleazy, and pathetic elements.

Johnny (David Thewlis), the mythic anti-hero of Naked is cynical, brutal, cold, sexist, and immoral. But he can also be sensitive, compassionate, and loving. If this description sounds ambiguous, it’s meant to be. Leigh said in a press conference in Cannes, where the film received it premiere: “My feelings about Naked are as ambivalent as my feelings about our chaotic late twentieth-century world, and probably as ambivalent as the film itself, which is, I hope, as funny as it is sad, as beautiful as it is ugly, as compassionate as it is loathsome, and as responsible as it is anarchic. But I really don’t want to pontificate about this film. I’d rather let it speak for itself.”

In all of his movies, Leigh has shown affinity with the lower classes, which he contrasts with the upper-middle classes and nouveau riche. In each film, he has worked with a small number of characters, stripping them of their layers of conflicting feelings to the point where they are literally naked, thus the tile. But theres also lyrical beauty and powerful truth in the exposed nakedness, due to Leighs simplicity and compassionate approach.

The vagabond hero of Naked is opportunistic and quick- witted; he knows how to turn situations to his advantage. When the story begins, Johnny arrives at the house of his former girlfriend, Louise (Sharp), a hospital nurse. In Louises absence, he befriends and beds her confused, inarticulate roommate (Cartridge). Johnny is contrasted with Jeremy (Greg Gruttwell), a wealthy bourgeois who’s even more misogynistic than he is. Jeremy’s pleasure resides in raping, torturing, and humiliating women. In their own erratic ways, the two men force their female victims to expose their inner souls, secret desires, and most personal pains. This doesn’t mean they always have the upper hand. In due course, each of the five characters undergoes a fateful transformation.

Though a lost soul, Johnny can communicate with every stranger he meets. Naked unfolds as a series of encounters between Johnny and the men and women he meets while wandering around London. The settings shift from bars to sidewalks, coffee shops, doorways, offices, and massage parlors.

As a young angry man, Johnny may be a descendant of the protagonist Jimmy Porter in John Osborn’s Look Back in Anger, and other “angry” dramas of the late l950s and early 1960s. A philosophical wanderer, Johnny is a wild, disturbing man, whose ferocious personality both brightens and troubles the world he travels. On the run, Johnny’s life seems meaningless, but within that intellectual vacuum, his inner spirit remains unbroken.

Leigh writes and directs his films, but he encourages his actors to develop their personae through a long period of rehearsals and improvisations. Which explains why the acting in his movies is always uniformly high. Thewlis, who won the Cannes acting award, renders a multi-shaded performance of powerful concentration thats both funny and pathetic.

The skewed, wildly imaginative humor of Leigh’s previous films, High Hopes and Life Is Sweet, are also on display in Naked, except that the mood is darker and the whole film is charged with deeper, pessimistic undercurrents. Once again, Leigh has made a searing critical expose of contemporary life in London.