Naked is probably the least typical of Mike Leigh’s films, but at the same time it’s undeniably the work of Leigh. It’s considerably darker in tone and has a look bordering on film noir, but it is still very much a snapshot of the East London where the vast majority of his films are set. It’s also the film which catapulted David Thewlis into his career as one of the greatest British character actors, and this is a perfect example of what would normally be a minor character part functioning as the lead in a film.
The film literally starts when Johnny Fletch (Thewlis) rapes a woman in a Manchester backstreet. He goes on the lam, and ends up in Dalston, London. Johnny seeks refuge in the home of an ex-girlfriend, Louise (Lesley Sharp), whose roommate Sophie (Katrin Cartlidge) is quickly seduced by Johnny—she falls head over heels in love with this absolute reprobate. The film, however, cuts between Johnny’s story and the story of a mysterious yuppie played by Greg Cruttwell, who is even more despicable than Johnny.
Most of film is Jonny’s “Journey to the End of the Night” in London, drawing on all the angry young man existentialist books that Leigh liked when he was younger: Celine, Camus, Dostoevsky and even the social satire of Voltaire’s Candide are given to Thewlis to draw upon. There is even a Colin Wilson book (Afterlife) quite visible in one sequence: Wilson wrote a book called The Outsider that explores the psyche of the outsider through culture and society.
Thewlis’s performance is obviously what the film is anchored upon, and initially it’s almost like watching a one-man show—because to a large extent it is. It takes a short period to adjust to the performance, because it’s so extreme and yet so mannered that it feels forced. But once you get into the rhythms of his speech and mannerisms, Johnny is very Mark E. Smith of The Fall-esque. in his rambling, philosophical rants, which are the utter gibberish of a drunkard punctuated by some profound poetry. Thewlis is on record saying that he was listening The Fall when they made the film because he thought Johnny would’ve liked them, but wasn’t sure he actually ever heard MES interviewed; however, the speech patterns are not far off from MES’. Johnny isn’t quite the conspiracy theorist that sometimes he is reported to be in some reviews: he is mainly drawing from James Gleick’s Chaos (another book that can be seen in the film) and the more apocalyptic passages from the Bible, and there isn’t much rhyme or reason to his ramblings.
Naked is also probably Mike Leigh’s definitive statement on Thatcher’s Britain, made three years after she was forced out. It really nails the depression, the big city disappointed by the promises of the hypercapitalism of the Thatcher years, and then you have Johnny, who presents as almost Jesus-like but could at the same time be the Devil. You also get the literal Devil in the face of Greg Cruttwell’s ultimate Übermensch yuppie. It’s not an easy watch, but it’s probably Leigh’s best film and shows the darker side to his work, which he rarely indulges it. Not an easy watch but a very rewarding film, and one that’s open to tons of interpretation with this knock-out performance from Thewlis. Thewlis owes his entire career here and abroad to the film, which was a surprise arthouse hit in the states, leading to Thewlis receiving some acting awards from critics’ groups.
The Blu-Ray from BFI includes a new 4k restoration, which both Leigh and his frequent cinematographer Dick Pope approve of. They are on record saying that it’s more like what they intended the film to look like than the previous US Criterion Blu-Ray. It also has a different aspect ratio—1.66:1 to the more standard 1.85:1 aspect ratio that Criterion used—which gives it a little more of a claustrophobic look. Leigh and Pope contribute a new interview for the release as well. There is also a 2002 retrospective Guardian video Interview to tie in with the release of All or Nothing, plus Leigh’s The Short and Curlies, a short film with Thewlis where his is impossibly young-looking and tells a young chemist horrible dad jokes. An image gallery and the 2021 theatrical re-release trailer are also included. The release incorporates the Criterion commentary as well, which was initially recorded for the 1994 laserdisc, but drops the appreciation by Neil LaBute (remember when he was a thing!) and a 2000 BBC2 interview between Leigh and Will Self that were on the Criterion DVD/Blu-Ray. The booklet includes new and old writing on both Naked and The Short and Curlies.