One of the most fascinating, complex, and divisive characters is unleashed upon the unsuspecting public in Mike Leigh’s moody and ruminative odyssey through London. Only known as Johnny, David Thewlis captures lightning in a bottle with his live wire acting, which earned him Best Actor at Cannes in 1993. Leigh is no slouch here either, he won Best Director as well, crafting and ultimately capturing the enigma that is Johnny and the strangeness of the world he inhabits.
Naked is something of a departure for Leigh who is best known for working class, slice of life ensemble pieces such as All or Nothing, Secrets and Lies, or the recent Another Year. With Naked, Leigh is exploring much darker territory and with much more stylistic brio than one would expect. The movie opens with Johnny banging some woman in a dark alley. After getting a little too rough, he flees the city and finds refuge with an ex-lover in London. Now, don’t get the wrong idea, this film has some sexual comings-and-goings, but the title is not merely expressive of the flesh.
As strange as it might sound, I found Naked to be a companion piece or sorts to 2008’s Happy-Go-Lucky, albeit in a completely opposite fashion. Johnny is the yin to Poppy’s yang. Poppy is the most optimistic character imaginable and Happy-Go-Lucky is largely about the pessimistic world reacting to her bubbly persona. Naked’s Johnny is damn near nihilistic and most of Naked is about him searching for someone or someplace that can withstand the shit he spews.
He marches into the cold night ranting and raving to anyone who will listen. At any given time his madness can be charming, hilarious, depressing or tarted up bullshit. Also at any given moment, it can be hard to determine if he’s some bi-polar nutter who believes he preaches gospel or just some masochistic glutton for punishment, looking for any chance to take a piss. You can see why Johnny is so hard to love, but so impossible to stop listening to. The movie is like watching a more temperamental Slacker, but with British accents.
Throughout his wild night Johnny encounters a shy waitress, Scottish hoodlums, and, most memorably, a lonely night watchman. In one brilliant scene Johnny bombards the poor watchman with a blistering monologue about the end of the world. The whole scene is shot wide and in the dark. You can’t see either man’s face, yet the intensity is palpable and totally captivating.
There is a slightly disengaging subplot involving a yuppie terrorizing Johnny’s ex and her roommate. It eventually finds its way, but frustratingly shifts some focus away from the main event, which is Johnny and his antics. Dick Pope’s camera work is gorgeous and quietly evocative. The score is as strung out as the protagonist.
The existential nightmare isn’t overplayed but instead humanized by the sharp acting by Thewlis (really never given a better role) and the sure-handed direction from Mike Leigh. When Johnny finally receives some form of comeuppance you’re left to wonder if he really deserves it. I mean, let’s be clear, he’s a bastard. But, he has such magnetism that if you let him talk long enough, he might just convince you otherwise. This could be the life he’s earned by being himself or just more of the same unbearable randomness that Johnny’s been harping on about. For Johnny, a final explanation would probably just piss him off more.