(UK 1993 131m) DVD1/2
The end of the world is nigh
p Simon Channing-Williams d/w Mike Leigh ph Dick Pope ed Jon Gregory m Andrew Dickson art Alison Chitty
David Thewlis (Johnny), Lesley Sharp (Louise), Katrin Cartlidge (Sophie), David Wight (Brian), Greg Crutwell (Jeremy), Claire Skinner (Sandra), Ewen Bremner (Archie), Susan Vidler (Maggie), Gina McKee (girl in café), Deborah MacLaren (woman in window),
If ever a film demanded to be referred to as apocalyptic, this was it. If ever a film demanded to be referred to as nihilistic, call off the hounds, it’s here. Yet to merely pigeonhole this film or attach such vague terms as these is an act of gross misunderstanding, for in many ways this is the very antithesis of nihilistic. Here is a film about a society, and a protagonist, crying out for something to believe in. At the time of its release, it shocked people, in the way too few films shock. It may have won the big prizes at Cannes in its year, but it was ignored at most end of year award ceremonies. True, 1993 was probably the greatest cinematic year of its decade, with masterpieces by Kieslowski, Spielberg and Campion also emerging above the horizon, but Leigh’s film has always been there, lingering like a bad smell that won’t go away. Over ten years on, what at first seemed merely a radical change of direction for Leigh, and a graduation to cinematic maturity, now in many ways seems the most essential British film of its decade.
Johnny is an unemployed (unemployable?) Mancunian who leaves Manchester in a hurry after a sexual encounter in an alley (one assumes his rape of a married woman, who threatens to get him beaten up). He steals a car and hotfoots it down to London, where on a whim he goes to the home of his ex, Louise, who has been working as a secretary in the city. Finding her not in, he is let in by Louise’s unemployed flatmate, Sophie, and they spend the day chatting together waiting for Louise to get home. Thus begins Johnny’s odyssey in the capital, one that will be a life changer for many he meets.
Leigh’s film is admittedly a very hard film to like, but it’s that very unloveliness that rings truest. For sure, Crutwell’s truly odious sexually deviant yuppie is rather a cliché, but in Leigh’s eyes he’s not so much a character as a cyst, one containing all the puss of the diseases crippling modern London – apathy, loneliness, despair, poverty and a host of others – with Leigh and Thewlis the maladjusted surgeons. The idea of a character spending a night or two in a city they do not understand or know is hardly a new one, having been the pitch for many famous films. But in most other cases there’s a sense of wonder at moving into the unknown. Leigh’s protagonist rather acts like a guide to hell, his wanderings into the despair of the city mirroring his own misogynistic, fatalistic, cynical persona. Leigh obviously feels some pity for his lonely souls and their moribund existences, and he would go on to explore that still further in his later films. Yet Naked doesn’t merely show you the disillusionment of modern everyday people, it forces you to look deeper, and the more you look, the less you find, and the more empty you are made to feel. In truth, an equally apt title would be Lost.
What in the end really takes the film into the stratosphere, however, is the performance of David Thewlis. No disrespect to the rest of the cast, including various recognisable faces (particular credit to Wight and the late, wonderful Cartlidge), but the film loses electricity whenever he is off screen. It’s one of the most edgy, brilliant, fiery performances in the modern cinema. “All you have to look forward to is sickness and purgatory” he warns, later despairing at how mankind has become expendable and too easily bored. He’s a despicable character in so many ways, capable of numerous atrocious acts, yet you are very much with him, and this is a great testament to Thewlis’ skill as an actor. Just to think of the truly apocalyptic conversation with Wight in a disused office building is to ponder greatness. Above all, though, it’s his ready wit one recalls, perfectly encapsulated in a wonderful moment where he sees Bremner looking for his missing girlfriend with cries of “Maggie!!!” and he replies “she’s gone, mate. Those days are over.”