The decadence, scum and depravity on display throughout Mike Leigh’s 1993 cult hit Naked is a tragedy, a breathtakingly intimate approach to homelessness and poverty within London. Naked is a film filled with bad people, all of whom have no chance of making it, nor do they have any desire to do so. They’re happy to toil, to deprive others of their worldly possessions, and to make ends meet any way they can. Perhaps that’s the perfect introduction we can get to the film, with our leading character, portrayed by the always devilish David Thewlis, committing a horrific criminal act and fleeing to London.
From there, Naked focuses in on Thewlis’ presentation of Johnny, an unemployed drifter looking to shout, scream and con his way through life as best he can. A silver tongue and scruffy attire are the baggage within his life, and we follow him as he interacts with just about everyone and anyone. His tenacious confidence comes off as charming from time to time, but then you remember he’s quite clearly unhinged. A danger to society and someone that any audience would find it hard to connect with on any level whatsoever. I was never sure if we were to feel sorry for him, to appreciate the hard times he found himself in, or if we were to loathe his existence, one that brings no value to anyone around him or himself.
None of that would’ve been possible without the crucially great performance Thewlis has to offer. Alongside his leading performance, the interactions he frequents with other characters offer up some sublime supporting work from a whole host of familiar faces. Ewen Bremner, Peter Wight, Claire Skinner and Lesley Sharp all appear in various capacities throughout Naked. They’re fleetingly showcased from time to time, we never know when these interactions and encounters will start or end. We never really know what the outcome will be until we find ourselves in the early hours of the next morning with Johnny, keeled over, tab in his mouth trying to focus in on what to do next.
It’s a film of anxiety, of rot and degradation. Johnny is a detestable individual through and through, but Leigh’s direction can’t help but suggest a glimmer of hope in his characteristics. Something that may suggest that, deep down, he is in fact worth saving. The same cannot be said for Greg Cruttwell’s performance as Sebastian, a man whose plot just happens to coincide with the events of the film, appearing sporadically without much rhyme or reason, other than to give the end of the film a bit of pulp.
Naked is an apt title for this piece, especially considering it strips down the ideals of one person to the barebones. We get to shine a spotlight into the world of those desperate few who lie, cheat, and steal their way through life without a hope or care in the world. Thewlis captures that perfectly, and Leigh guides him across a line of conflicting emotions, all of which culminate in a feverishly open ended and rigorously fantastic ending.