Mike Leigh’s corrosive ’93 period piece reviewed
It’s easy to forget Naked now, particularly as within four years of its 1993 release the grim, broken remnants of Thatcher’s Britain had been washed away in the triumphal swell of Cool Britannia. When folks on those talking heads shows reminisce about the Greatest British Films Of The 1990s, they usually direct their praise to the feelgood films that reflected the euphoria of Tony Blair’s rise to power – Brassed Off, Four Weddings And A Funeral, The Fully Monty. Even the nihilism, heroin and dead babies of Trainspotting was deemed acceptable in the mad-fer-it, anything-goes mid-’90s.
But Naked seems to have fallen off the radar. Surprisingly, as in many ways it fits perfectly onto the template for which Mike Leigh is most acclaimed: grittily authentic social commentary. But, perhaps, it’s just too cruel, too corrosive a film, even by Leigh’s standards. Maybe part of the problem is Leigh’s protagonist, the Mancunian drifter, Johnny (David Thewlis, outstanding). A cross between Johnny Rotten, Jimmy Porter and Alex DeLarge, it’s easy to categorise Johnny as a loathsome misogynist, an impression that’s hard to shake after we first meet him, raping a woman in Manchester before fleeing down to London.
Of course, Johnny is far more complex than that. He’s brilliantly, scabrously funny (“Are you taking the piss?”, “Why, are you giving it away?”), prone to lengthy philosophical rants about the human condition (“Nobody has a future, the party’s over, take a look around you, it’s all breaking up,”) and gleefully playing havoc with the people he meets in the film: a homeless Scottish couple, a middle-aged security guard, a yuppie, and Johnny’s ex-girlfriend and her flatmate. But there is, you suspect, something terrible that’s twisted him that might – just might – offer some sliver of redemption, or at least explain why he’s so embittered. There’s even the suggestion he’s suffering from an unidentified, debilitating medical condition, possibly HIV/AIDS: “You don’t want to fuck me. You’ll catch something cruel,” he warns at one point. Later, he’s asked whether he’s ever seen a dead body. “Only my own,” he replies.
EXTRAS: 3*: An old – but good – commentary from Leigh, Thewlis and Katrin Cartlidge.