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.

7 comments:

MovieMan0283 said...

Chalk this up as one of those movies I expected to find "interesting" at best, insufferable at worse, but which was in fact one of the most riveting, entertaining, brilliant, and often funny movies I've seen. Biggest credit goes to Thewlis' dynamic, compulsively watchable performance and dialogue that can stand proudly alongside any other in film history. I'm not sure he rapes that girl in the beginning; it seems kind of ambiguous (especially in light of his later sex scenes) and has been interpreted both ways by critics.

Ed Howard said...

Yeah, I never expected to like this so much either -- I checked it out on a whim based on good recommendations, but I wasn't really expecting it to be such an overwhelming experience. "Riveting" is a great word for it.

You may be right about the opening scene, though it certainly seems like a rape or at least an attempted rape, and quite different from his later sex scenes, no matter how violent they are. In any case, one of the film's themes is the way that violence and degradation, being all that these people know, tends to be expressed even in their sexuality.

James Hansen said...

Yes yes yes yes yes yes yes.

That's all I've got to say about this movie...

Anonymous said...

This film opened my eyes to cinema proper, and seems to be one of those vastly underrated ones that people forget about.
Not me!

Anonymous said...

I don't consider the sex scene in the beginning to be a rape. I think what makes me feel this way is that it starts off with the woman involved giving subtle signs of consent. She says very clearly in the beginning "Oh, go on! Oh!" However, at some point the Johnny becomes more aggressive in his participation and ends up hurting her... there's a clear sign of when this happens when she goes from passive pleasurable sounds to a sound of pain, and then another and another. I think this is basically a consensual sex act that turned a bit too rough towards the end.

Anonymous said...

such a good movie

wordrainink said...

I've seen it several times by now, but never read anything about it. So your review is the first one. I liked it, even though it doesn't say much.
The movie is, imho, a masterpiece. Thewlis has one of his greatest characters, and I was amazed to see him so blunt in Harry Potter or in Dragonheart. Such a capable actor.