This bleak and nihilistic film by Mike Leigh has the potential to be a truly great British film in the realism genre, right up there with Ken Loach’s Raining Stones and Gary Oldman’s autobiographical masterpiece Nil by Mouth, but it is hamstrung by two characters who are relatively superfluous, but are in the film enough to derail it through poor dialogue and woeful acting.
Leigh’s traditional modus oporendi is perhaps the cause of the problem, as he presents the actors with a basic outline and allows them to develop the script through improvisation during rehearsals.
This film exhibits the best and worse outcomes of this methodology, as David Thewlis delivers one of the best performances by a British actor of the last twenty years in the role of Johnny, a highly intelligent but socially disadvantaged Mancunian who also has mental health issues (we assume) and ends up at his ex girlfriends flat in London in the wake of a violent sexual encounter up North.
Thewlis’ blistering performance is simply stunning, and through him we are encouraged to reflect of a wide variety of social and philosophical issues, from misogyny through to the very meaning and purpose of our existence.
Leigh differs from Ken Loach insofar as his films, though heavily politicised, are not as overtly didactic and the viewer is more at leave to muse on the issues raised. There is no real resolution plot wise and we are left to wonder at what would have happened next.
Thewlis’ genius is to portray Johnny’s scattergun and chaotic approach to life, but also to unlock his deeper feelings and innermost thoughts, articulating them through a variety of encounters over a couple of days.
In addition Lesley Sharp plays the ex girlfriend as an understated complement to the manic flatmate (the late Katrin Cartlidge) whom Johnny seduces and then discards, and Thewlis himself.
There are two other main characters and this is where the problems begin.
Greg Crutwell portrays the toff landlord who comes around to seduce the females but ends up being a violent bully. The character is a cardboard cut out, and just seems totally out of kilter with the Leigh oeuvre and whilst I appreciate the writer’s aim of (I assume) comparing Johnny with him from the perspective of him being very similar but with money and aspiration, it just didn’t work.
Sandra (Claire Skinner), the leaseholder comes back unexpectedly early from a sojourn in Zimbabwe only to discover this ménage of dysfunctional humanity, but her reactions are bafflingly inappropriate and the dialogue involving her is woeful.
But these gripes accepted, Naked is a worthwhile and important commentary on our times, still feeling fresh and relevant as Raining Stones does fully fifteen years on