Movies We Like
Naked is Mike Leigh's most philosophical exercise in improvisation. It also happens to be a very entertaining tale of the anti-hero and cynicism.
The protagonist, Johnny (David Thewlis), is an upbeat though altogether conflicted young man on the run from his native Manchester after getting himself into a sticky situation. He travels to London, ending up on the doorstep of his ex-girlfriend and encounters her roommate, Sophie (Katrin Cartlidge), while his ex-girlfriend is at work. Here we find our first example of Johnny putting his philosophical idioms and questions to work, as he seduces Sophie via negativity and shrewd, boastful simplification of existence and purpose.
When his ex-girlfriend Louise (Lesley Sharp) returns, it's made clear that the two have a lot of resentment towards each other and that Louise is irritated by his presence. Eventually Johnny sets off on a strange nomadic evening through London, unloading his theories onto anyone who will listen and making a mess of his life and everyone he encounters. We see him grasping for retribution instead of understanding, and devoid of empathy. Days pass, and on each one, Johnny is like a wolf who comes to your door. Some welcome the jolt in perspective, and others don't. Eventually he stumbles upon those who won't stand to be prodded, and worse for Johnny, they manifest that conflict physically.
As with any story surrounding the anti-hero, Naked can and should be a polarizing experience. It would be understandable, though perhaps easy, to detest the main character and thus rectify that same disgust with the people who are like him that you encounter in your own life. These are people who find the need to question everything or critique existence and human nature, all the while seeming detached and disingenuous in their efforts. An example would be men whose misogyny seems worse than what is customary. On the other hand, it is just as reasonable for someone to want to understand his character and even console him. Johnny is quite charming, after all, and Leigh provides us with a villain to juxtapose his behavior—a man (Greg Cruttwell) whose perspective and actions are nasty in every sense of the word, especially relative to the other characters. This mirroring of personalities and lifestyles is the essence of the film, and rarely do you see such an example in cinema, particularly one so engaging and easy to recognize.
I'll be honest, I'm not exactly a fan of Leigh's early work. He is heralded as someone who paints a unique, though widely unpopular, portrait of England—and for being a master of improvisation. His films Secrets & Lies, Topsy-Turvy and Vera Drake are all quite popular and deserving of praise. Still, Life is Sweet and many of his shorts just didn't do it for me. And this film had the potential to disappoint at first; I though it was going to be another dark comedy about Englanders, full of culturally isolating jokes and wry humor. But it was so much more than that and sincerely relatable. In that sense, Naked seemed to mark a very important directional change for Leigh. Sure, he maintained his style, but it's as if the last scene of Naked (which shows Johnny hobbling down a street at dusk) is a metaphor for a lot more than what is implied. I'd recommend the film to fans of Ken Loach and Danny Boyle.