In the 1950s and 1960s, a group of British novelists and playwrights came to be identified as the “angry young men.” The writers themselves were “angry young men” (though writer Shelagh Delaney was, I suppose, an “angry young woman”) and their stories were usually about “angry young men” who were disenchanted with the hypocrisy and false promise of post-war British society. Hemmed in by a rigid class system which restricted opportunity, these working class heroes raged against the machine, generally with little success. The “angry young man” literary movement quickly transitioned into film where it came to be known as “kitchen sink realism,” exemplified by films such as Tony Richardson´s “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner” (1962). Though the “kitchen sink” movement was short-lived, its influence remains potent in British cinema even today.
Johnny (David Thewlis), the protagonist of Mike Leigh´s stark, controversial “Naked” (1993) is an angry young man for the post-Thatcher generation. Though only 27, he already looks far older, aged prematurely by a society blighted by Thatcher´s supply side economics. Thanks to the cult of privatization, government monopolies have been transformed into private monopolies and the gulf between rich and poor widens on a daily basis. Johnny sees all of this – ask him and he´ll tell you he´s the only person who sees it for what it is – and he´s damned angry about it.
He takes this anger out on everyone around him, especially women. At the start of the film, he flees Manchester for London after he has a violent sexual encounter with a woman – is it rape? She seems to think so and Johnny decides it´s best to run. He crashes at the apartment of his ex-girlfriend Louise (Leslie Sharpe). Far from being grateful to her for taking him in, he attacks her for her new bourgeois ways. She has a proper job now and Johnny thinks she´s an idiot for buying into the system. Indeed, Johnny thinks everyone around him is inferior to him in every way, and has no qualms about letting them know it.
Johnny hooks up with Louise´s roommate Sophie (Katrin Cartlidge), a burned-out drug addict starved for love and attention. Johnny gives it to her, but at a price, as he can´t contain his violent proclivities. Soon he becomes fed up with both women (after using them to satisfy his various needs) and wanders out in to the night. The rest of the film is told in a series of vignettes as Thewlis encounters several fellow night owls also prowling the burned-out husk of post-Thatcher London.
Johnny is played by David Thewlis in what can only be described as an exhausting, tour-de-force performance. Thewlis is the center of almost every scene in the film, and fills every moment with his inspired vitriol. He rants and raves and curses at a cold, cruel world that doesn´t give a damn about him, and never seems to run out of energy while doing so. “Naked” is like a concert with Thewlis performing one extended, turbo-charged solo after another. He is intelligent, well-educated and eloquent, though these positive attributes are often swallowed by his misogyny which may be nothing more than a specific manifestation of his general misanthropy. Life stinks, and anyone who doesn´t understand that is an idiot, according to Johnny.
In Johnny´s eyes, society is not merely dysfunctional; it is on the verge of collapse. He swings back and forth manic-depressively between incoherent rage and millennial paranoia. He sees signs of the end all-around him and, in the rare moments when he feels charitable, he attempts to convince others that the end is near. In one sequence, he meets a lonely security guard named Brian (Peter Wright) who invites him in out of the cold night air. Johnny, of course, is hardly grateful, but instead harangues Brian with his visions of doom. From Nostradamus to the alignment of the planets to Chernobyl, the signs are all there if you´re a privileged seer like Johnny: “The end of the world is nigh, Bri. The game is up!” And as far as we can tell, if the world ended tomorrow, Johnny would be pleased simply to know that he was right all along.
Mike Leigh´s improvisational techniques have been oft-discussed. His films aren´t truly improvised in the sense a theatrical performance might be improvised. Rather, he develops characters and general scenarios and then rehearses with his cast for weeks, allowing them ample room to explore and develop the story. Once he is satisfied he writes a (rather short) screenplay and filming begins.
Leigh´s reliance on his actors usually pays off with exceptional performances, and “Naked” is no exception. In addition to Thewlis, the film features a gritty, authentic performance by the late and sorely missed Katrin Cartlidge. She portrays Sophie as a cynical, street-wise woman whose toughness is only a guise meant to cover up her innate naïveté. Unlike Johnny, she hasn´t given up hope and is still searching for love around every corner. It is easy to overlook Lesley Sharpe´s performance as Louise. She is calm and reserved while everyone around her is loud and brash; she remains quiet while they indulge in histrionics. But Louise is essential as the center which holds together a film which could otherwise degenerate into a formless shriek.
Leigh´s film sparked much controversy mostly for its violent sexual scenes. Johnny likes to hurt women during sex, but he´s an amateur compared to Jeremy (Greg Cruttwell), a smarmy yuppie who uses his wealth and class privilege to use and abuse every woman he encounters. “Naked” was dogged by charges of misogyny, as some critics claimed that merely making someone like Johnny the main character provided a de facto stamp of approval for his behavior. Stanley Kubrick encountered similar criticism with “A Clockwork Orange” and it didn´t make any more sense then than it does in this case. Perhaps the problem stems from the fact that Leigh never overtly condemns Johnny´s actions either, but that´s not really the point of the film. Leigh prefers to observe his characters, both the good and the bad, rather than judge them.
Be warned. “Naked” is unrelentingly grim film; it is about as far from a feel-good Hollywood film as you will ever get. Some of the characters eventually develop connections to each other, but they are, ultimately, alone in an uncaring, hostile world. There is no light at the end of the tunnel for Johnny or Sophie or, perhaps, anyone else. Johnny´ nihilism is often childish and his millennial blathering becomes downright tedious at times, but he is a truly fascinating character. Thewlis´ performance is breathtaking and worth the price of admission all by itself. Much like Johnny, “Naked” is occasionally infuriating, but it is also unforgettable.
Criterion originally released “Naked” on SD in 2005, and it was a strong transfer. The 1080p Blu-Ray upgrade is still a significant one, however. The color palette of the SD looks a bit off-key and artificial compared to this richer, more naturalistic version. As expected, the level of detail is much sharper, most noticeably in the close-ups. More detail is also visible in the (numerous) darker sequences, and a strong grainy look not apparent in the SD transfer really boosts the quality of his high-def treatment. Cinematographer Dick Pope’s bleak vision of London looks, well, even bleaker now.
The film is presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0. I’ve never claimed to have the keen ear of a zealous audiophile and I have to admit I don’t notice any great difference in the DTS upgrade of this sparse and hollow audio design. The dialogue is clearly mixed and there’s no evidence of distortion or damage. Optional English subtitles support the English audio, and might be necessary for American viewers who struggle with the thick accents.
The extras have all been imported from the 2005 SD release and are presented here in HD. The two-disc SD has been condensed into a single-disc BR.
A full-length commentary track by Leigh, Thewlis, and Cartlidge accompanies the film, and is quite involving.
The other extras are:
Neal Labute on “Naked” (13 min.): Director Labute shares his impressions about Leigh´s controversial film.
The Art Zone: “The Conversation” (36 min.): A 2000 episode of the British series “The Art Zone.” Novelist Will Self sits in a pub and speaks with Mike Leigh. It is an informal, rambling discussion of some interest to Leigh fans, but not of any great consequence either.
“The Short and Curlies” (17 min.): A 1987 short film directed by Leigh. In a 180-degree turn from his role in “Naked”, David Thewlis plays a goofy, affable nerd who uses a series of painfully bad one-liners to pick up a hairdresser´s daughter (Alison Steadman.) It generates more polite chuckles than outright laughs, but it is enjoyable fare. The short comes with a commentary track by Mike Leigh.
An Original Theatrical Trailer rounds out the collection.
The 16-page inset booklet has attractive graphics and short but enlightening essays by Derek Malcolm and Amy Taubin.
“Naked” was nominated for the Palme d´Or at Cannes. Though it didn´t win, David Thewlis and Mike Leigh walked away with awards for Best Actor and Best Director, respectively. The Academy, however, couldn´t be bothered even to nominate Thewlis for Best Actor proving once again that Oscar is both tone deaf and utterly terrified of controversy.
Criterion’s Blu-Ray transfer doesn’t offer any new extras, but the 1080p transfer is a meaningful upgrade over the original 2005 SD release. I don’t know if I’d run out and upgrade my old SD copy just for the video bump, but for those who don’t know a copy yet, the Blu-Ray, which retails at the same price as the old SD, is obviously the way to go. Also, the new cover art is fantastic!