With there being little in the way of a plot (a smartarse named Johnny comes down to London from Manchester after sexually assaulting a woman and muses on life, the universe and everything else), we are left to look to other avenues to see if the film works. Certainly, David Thewlis is in incendiary form as Johnny, the classic alienated loner: skinny, gangly, unkempt, dressed in black and an attitude that incorporates both self-loathing and an exuberant ego. The sort of person you want to feel a kinship for, but is too much of a smart-arse to be bearable.
He strolls around London intellectually bullying people he considers to be beneath him, threatening (and in some cases attacking) vulnerable women and (in one of the most satisfying moments of the film) gets his head kicked in by a gang of teenagers. He is an utterly loathsome character, but the intensity of Thewlis’ performance means you cannot help but keep watching, always waiting for the moment whenever the wheels come off.
In some regards, Naked is similar to Raging Bull: the viewer is forced to stick with a deeply unlikeable character as he slowly alienates everyone around him. And while Robert De Niro’s character uses his fists to attack, Johnny uses words. One example is his encounter with a night watchman called Brian who dreams of a future away from his job. Johnny subjects him to the following:
Has nobody not told you, Brian, that you've got this kind of gleeful preoccupation with the future? I wouldn't even mind, but you don't even have a fuckin' future, I don't have a future. Nobody has a future. The party's over. Take a look around you man, it's all breaking up. Are you not familiar with the book of Revelations of St. John, the final book of the Bible prophesying the apocalypse?... He forced everyone to receive a mark on his right hand or on his forehead so that no one shall be able to buy or sell unless he has the mark, which is the name of the beast, or the number of his name, and the number of the beast is 6-6-6... What can such a specific prophecy mean? What is the mark? Well the mark, Brian, is the barcode, the ubiquitous barcode that you'll find on every bog roll and packet of johnnies and every poxy pork pie, and every fuckin' barcode is divided into two parts by three markers, and those three markers are always represented by the number 6. 6-6-6! Now what does it say? No one shall be able to buy or sell without that mark. And now what they're planning to do in order to eradicate all credit card fraud and in order to precipitate a totally cashless society, what they're planning to do, what they've already tested on the American troops, they're going to subcutaneously laser tattoo that mark onto your right hand, or onto your forehead. They're going to replace plastic with flesh. Fact! In the same book of Revelations when the seven seals are broken open on the day of judgment and the seven angels blow the trumpets, when the third angel blows her bugle, wormwood will fall from the sky, wormwood will poison a third part of all the waters and a third part of all the land and many many many people will die! Now do you know what the Russian translation for wormwood is?... Chernobyl! Fact.
All throughout this diatribe, Brian listens patiently and engages with Johnny on some points. But although he is tested at several points, at no time does he give into Johnny’s nihilistic world view, even telling him at one point that he shouldn’t waste his life. It’s a moment which invites comparisons with the temptation of Christ, the empty apartment block standing in for the desert, and also acts as an inversion of Johnny: someone who has accepted the absurdities of life but is content to find meaning in it as opposed to tearing everything down. Moments like this give added poignancy to the existential suffering of the characters in this film.
Likewise, the character of Jeremy (the landlord) is underdeveloped but serves a similar purpose which, in this case, is demonstrating just how hateful Johnny is. This is because the two are both sides of the same coin: serial rapists and abusers, self-absorbed to the point of sociopathology. However, while Johnny has the fancy wordplay and intellectual knowledge, Jeremy has money and status. His dialogue is much more direct (“Nice tits, Louise” “Do you think women enjoy being raped?”) and delivered with a calculated veneer: he knows he’s above the law and therefore thinks he has license to do what he wants. As others have commented, he is effectively Johnny through the looking glass. And, through such distortions, director Mike Leigh demonstrates how deep misogyny can run through high society.
Portrayed by Lesley Sharp and Katrin Cartlidge, Louise and Sophie are lost characters in their own right. Louise is fed up with her job and life, whereas Sophie is clearly damaged (with Johnny and Jeremy taking full advantage of her) rotting away in a grimy house where no one cares about her (even Louise fails to be sympathetic in the immediate aftermath of a rape). The two of them are barely suited to be housemates, seemingly unwilling or unable to open up about their own alienation. However, as time goes on, Louise learns to stand up for herself while Sophie runs off. Perhaps a cruel denouement for the most sympathetic character in the film, but a telling comment about how London is akin to a jungle, where only the strong are able to survive.
London itself functions as a main character in the film. Set in pre-gentrification East London, it’s a never-ending set of grimy flats populated with lost and lonely people with the odd “postmodern gas chamber” for fancy apartments (that are all empty). It becomes a commentary on how Thatcherism, the decay of the 70’s and the decrepit corpse of the Swinging Sixties has destroyed this city, ripping the soul out of it and left it running on fumes as well as the hopes of its youth. Premiering seven months after the IRA bombed the City of London added a new poignancy to these observations.
One-part period piece, one-part contemporary look at modern life, Naked is a film that will provoke many a reaction from the audience, but you’ll think of nothing else in the immediate aftermath.
⏩ Christopher Owens was a reviewer for Metal Ireland and finds time to study the history and inherent contradictions of Ireland. He is currently the TPQ Friday columnist.