Naked: Leigh's Brutality of a Film



Mike Leigh’s 1993 film, Naked, certainly lives up to its title. Following the director’s famous method of working with the actors in improvisation sessions to establish the characters, their backgrounds, their traits, and then, write the script, Naked offers an array of drifters that are quite literally stripped to the bone. This is a film that is uncompromisingly honest, and very often, brutally sadistic towards its audience; it presents real life as it is, in the most bare, unpretentious and sardonic way possible. An incredible piece of cinema that is as marvelous as it is uncomfortable, and as captivating as it is painful to get through, Naked is one of the best films ever made, and something I doubt anybody would have the courage to make anymore.


Naked starts rough and only gets rougher. Right as the film starts, we see the film’s protagonist, Johnny, and a woman having rough sexual intercourse in a dark alley which quickly turns into an act of rape. Fearing the repercussions of his action, Johnny flees Manchester towards London to stay at an old girlfriend’s place. If the film’s opening scene establishes Johnny as an abusive, perilous beggar, his first dialogue with another character reveals another side of him: a charming, charismatic and funny nihilist. The fact is, Johnny has no distinguishable traits, no fixed beliefs, and is, in the perfect sense of the word, a drifter. He is not your usual run-of-the-mill beggar, he is an intellectual and a philosopher, a conspiracy theorist and a man of ideas, but utilizes his intellect only to abuse acquaintances and strangers alike. Johnny is not at all an easy person to get along with, his traits are those of a dangerous, abusive sadist, and the film forces its viewer to be in his company for the majority of its 2h10mins runtime, as he drifts from place to place, taunting old lovers, mocking pedestrians, and hurting mere strangers. Naked is an episodic tale of misery, separating its acts of mental warfare with a hauntingly melancholic tune, and a  moment of reflective solitude, before gifting Johnny another set of characters to torment.


Mike Leigh’s previous films saw the director doing social commentary on modern day Britain, slice-of-life films that observed more than disapproved, but his 1993 film introduced the world to something they’d never seen from him. There is not a bit of hope in Naked, every second of it screams “life is hell,” and what’s more than that, the film tries to come to terms with the depressive state of man. Although filmed in London with a completely British cast, there is a certain universality in the film. It is filmed in a high-contrast style that emits claustrophobic, surreal and nightmarish qualities. Naked throws its characters out into the world and remains extremely close to them with a criticizing lens.


Since its release in 1993, fans have been debating the character of Johnny, with some calling him a Jesus-figure, out in the world to teach and warn, and others comparing him to Satan, spreading destruction wherever he roams, a contrast that is encouraged by the many biblical references in the film, and the fascination he has with the bible, although not believing in anything, let alone God. To me, Johnny is a man of dualities, a walking contradiction, to whom morality is but a tool, and so is everything else; coming from nowhere, and going nowhere really, Johnny’s entire being can be summed up in one of his lines: I have an infinite number of places to go, the trouble is where I stay.


The film’s other characters are equally fascinating in their own depressive, repulsive ways. Apart from its sarcastic and abusive protagonist, Naked offers its audience a submissive, detached drug addict, indifferent to life and a victim to all its wrongdoings; an overly-forgiving, lenient ex-lover with ghosts of a romantic mentality as a coping mechanism; an extremely violent rapist who takes joy in others’ pain, in any form he can get; a low-class working man with an obsessive fascination with the future, and a painful nostalgia for a past he didn’t even live...Naked’s characters may be unorthodox and rare, but through their singular, excessive traits, the film criticizes the whole of the modern man and the aimlessness of his situation.  


For a film that sets out to destroy any hope or happy thought you might have about life, Naked is surprisingly entertaining. Through its sarcastic, nihilistic Johnny, and his abusive encounters with the underworld of London, the film criticizes everything the modern man has become, but not in hopes of correction or change. As Johnny walks away from yet another possibility of stability at the end, it is clear that this is a film about man’s slow, painful and clumsy journey towards the abyss.  

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