Monday, November 24, 2008
Films I Love #8: Naked (Mike Leigh, 1993)
Johnny (David Thewlis), the homeless, wandering central character in Mike Leigh's Naked, issues a profound challenge to audience identification right from his first appearance on screen: in the opening minutes of the film, he violently rapes a girl against an alley wall, fleeing afterward through shadowy streets until he stumbles upon an unattended car he can steal. He is, to say the least, not an especially likable protagonist, but Leigh nevertheless trains his camera on him, sticking with him and the other downtrodden characters he encounters on his rambling adventures. Johnny doesn't necessarily get any more likable, but he does become more sympathetic, more complex, even in some strange ways taking on the voice of the film's moral compass. In an urban wasteland that offers few opportunities and none that the restless, angry Johnny would want to consider Johnny's half-crazed rants about political exploitation, homelessness, and the fulfillment of apocalyptic biblical prophesies in the form of the bar code begin to sound, if not reasonable, then at least understandable, a natural extension of this landscape. The film is anchored by Thewlis' fearless performance, investing tremendous energy into the unhinged Johnny, drawing out both his undirected universal anger and his surprising (if often short-lived) moments of warmth and tenderness towards his fellow down-and-outs. Leigh's camera lingers on Thewlis and the other actors for revealing close-ups that capture this expressive troupe of born character actors (Karin Cartlidge, Lesley Sharp) at their most unveiled and even transcendent. The film's probing, mordantly funny social critique of working class London is by turns sharp a wonderful sequence with a bored night watchman (Peter Wight) who refuses to believe that he has no future and utterly brutal, a hammer to the head the creepy, sexually sadistic landlord (Greg Cruttwell) whose profound sense of smug upper-class privilege makes him a much more dangerous evil than Johnny's more diffuse outbursts of misdirected violence.