Wednesday, 2 July 2008

Naked (1993, UK, Mike Leigh)

A corrosive view of London in the early 90s, reflecting the effects of Thatcherism, 'Naked' won two awards at Venice for both Leigh's direction and for David Thewlis in his role as Johnny, a misanthropic and existentialist drifter. Previously known for his more light hearted comedy dramas with a social and political agenda of their own, 'Naked' is Leigh in truly darker terrain where any comedy that exists is of the blackest kind. Leigh opens with a completely ambiguous scene in a Manchester alleyway where Johnny has brutal sex with a woman which either is consented to or not - it's hard to tell, and this sets the tone for the entire film. Fleeing Manchester, Johnny heads for London to meet with an ex-girlfriend Louise (Lesley Sharp) and completely turns the worlds of everyone he meets upside down. It brings to mind the Devil/Christ figure of both 'Theorem' by Pasolini or 'Brimstone and Treacle' by Dennis Potter - Johnny similarly arrives from nowhere, leaves everyone's world in upheaval and vanishes.

Full of bile and self-loathing, he speaks to anyone and everyone on the London streets with a rapid fire delivery, which either bamboozles them or provokes violence, or in the case of Louise's flatmate Sophie (the late Katrin Cartlidge), she falls in love with him. What does Johnny represent? A Britain torn apart by the policies of Thatcher? A Britain that has lost hope, that has lost its place in the world? Despite his moral ambiguity, there is at least a sense of sympathy about him, even though he lies, cheats and betrays. Maybe it's his fierce intellect - he's a slightly more dangerous Jimmy Porter using the power of language to assert himself. Contrast this with Louise and Sophie's landlord Jeremy (Gregg Crutwell), the prime example of Thatcher's policies run amok. A vulgar, nasty yuppie who spits people up and chews them out, who wants nothing more than to assert his control over others, Jeremy's existence makes Johnny seem a salvageable cause. It's another Leigh cliché about the vulgarity of the upwardly mobile middle class, albeit a far more contemptible and violent stereotype than we're used to.

'Naked' presents contemporary London is a raw and macabre light, a world away from the cosiness of Richard Curtis's London, with more in common with say Stephen Frears' 'Dirty Pretty Things' - certainly that's the only film I recall since than shows London in such a tourist unfriendly fashion. This is a film about lives on the edge, lived dangerously, with a true sense of something near apocalyptic about to occur. Johnny's self-destructive behaviour is all he has in a world that has cut him adrift; perhaps his sole means of revenge upon the world. 4/5


Andrew K said...

I suppose Johnny is something of the fragile idealist who in the face of a world vastly at odds with the ideal, turns savage cynic. And naturally the type of world that Johnny meets is determined by his own nature, so it's not gonna be pretty.
Saw it again recently, and the one thing is though that the vileness of the Jeremy character sideline does damage rather than strengthen the film: the stench of a heavy-handed director rather than the feel of life. sS it a kind of lack of respect for the intelligence of the audience? Like the much more so moral vomit of Rrequiem for a Dream.

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