Johnny (David Thewlis) is an unemployed layabout who has had to flee his home city of Manchester to escape a beating after he rapes a woman in the street; she warns him that she will get her family onto him and that's not something Johnny feels like hanging around for. So he ends up in London, tracking down the home of old girlfriend Louise (Lesley Sharp) after she sent him a postcard telling him where she now lived, never dreaming that he might actually turn up on her doorstep. But it's not really her doorstep, as she shares it with on-holiday nurse Sandra (Claire Skinner) and the also unemployed Sophie (Katrin Cartlidge), so it's Sophie who invites Johnny in while Louise is at work...
The style of writer and director Mike Leigh is all about improvisation, and so it was with Naked, a work that won him the Best Director prize at Cannes, and his star Thewlis Best Actor to boost his career. It's an End Times snarl at the state of modern Britain which goes beyond simple tut-tutting and aggressively rubs the audience's nose in the grime and desperation of lives which are supposed to sum up the futility of it all. However, and it could have been because of the improvisation implemented, the more you examined its themes, the more you peeled away the layers of darkness, all you would find was more darkness underneath. Its point is oblique in ways that the modern life is rubbish surface belies.
At its heart, at its harrowing soul, is the electrifying performance of Thewlis as a man who is shrewd, sarcastic, educated enough to know the Bible and the classics but not educated enough to do anything useful with that information, and by turns disarming and repellent. The opening scene sees Johnny at his worst, raping his victim then shortly afterward stealing a car to get to London where he fails to find much of an improvement in his situation. The best sequences are where he wanders the streets at night, turned off by the clingy advances of Sophie, encountering various misfits and loners and demanding they engage him in conversation. Some, like Ewen Bremner's inarticulate Scotsman, barely tolerate him, but others, like Peter Wight's Brian the security guard, are keener to have him around to stave off their loneliness.
When Johnny meets up with Brian, who invites him to accompany him on his rounds, they engage in chatter that exposes not only Leigh's apocalyptic point of view, but the drawbacks of having a half-formed philosophy based around a complete lack of direction seeing as how mankind is going to be wiped out in 1999 anyway. It's true this is the mood that Naked leaves you with, but even Johnny carries on, with the famous last shot of him stumbling away proving that he also has something driving him even if its purely to get away from anyone who might accomodate his abrasive personality. At times Thewlis is very funny indeed, with Johnny his own worst enemy as he winds up the other characters, never letting the opportunity for a bad pun or over-their-heads reference go by, but are we meant to compare him to the film's most obnoxious creation, the violent and smirking yuppie Jeremy (Greg Cruttwell)? Is Johnny no more than a product of his unlovely environment as he is? It's not clear, and that's why the film is stronger in its despairing atmosphere than its specifics: there are certainly no solutions proffered here. Music by Andrew Dickson.