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Naked review – David Thewlis is a tour-de-force in Mike Leigh’s dark classic

The British director's grim and controversial 1993 film follows a monstrous Northerner on a journey through decaying London

David Thewlis gives one of the all-time great screen performances as the loathable bag of contradictions that is Johnny, misguided prophet-cum-protagonist of Mike Leigh's darkest and most depressing film Naked, now on re-release. We meet Johnny mid-coitus, hunched over in an alleyway, where it's not entirely clear whether the woman he's having sex with is a willing participant. He flees to Dalston, stealing her car, and comes barreling into the life of former girlfriend, Louise (Lesley Sharp), and her roommate, Sophie (Katrin Cartlidge), who quickly falls for the sarky Mancunian despite his abusive treatment of her.

Naked takes place over just a couple of days, spread across a series of increasingly disturbing encounters, and is essentially an entry in the “dark night of the soul” canon of films. When I told a friend I'd be watching it for the first time for this re-release, their response was: “Amazing. But I never want to see it again.” No kidding. Leigh is well-known for peddling a specific type of British bleakness, but this film pushes such affects to new heights and hums with a kind of putrid nihilism lacking in his other works.

Mouth like a busted water pipe, spewing rage and bile, and delivering Leigh's one-liners and wordy rants in a way that makes them feel improvised (the director must have been grateful to find an actor who could pull this off so convincingly), Thewlis makes unforgettable work of volatile, spiteful Johnny, too intelligent for his own good, undeniably witty and quick to turn a phrase, but also a conspiracy theorist whose pontificated ramblings have him going in exhausted circles. The tirades are relentless, though in Thewlis' capable hands, Johnny might as well be delivering Shakespeare.

Leigh paints post-Thatcherite Britain as a kind of above-ground sewer – a dank pit where the poor and the miserable endlessly circle one another, falling into random encounters in which they try to understand themselves, only to fail and move on. At times we wonder whether Leigh has leaned into the grotesque, almost Victorian-like misery too far. But then, this movie almost takes on the air of something less literal – it is a kind of existential parable enforced by what feel like distinct “episodes,” not unlike, say, Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut.

Al the time, Leigh undercuts the instances of horror and darkness with sudden jokes and moments that dare to endear us to Johnny (though mileage may vary). The film makes a habit of repeatedly catching you off guard – when it has fallen into the pits of despair, Johnny will say something unexpectedly funny or wry, and you're not sure whether it's OK to laugh. Part of the fascination is that monstrous as Johnny is, Leigh still finds him as a human being. More than anyone, Johnny hates himself, so he can only extend this hatred onto others.

The film's one misstep might be in its inclusion of the yuppie sociopath rapist Patrick/Sebastian, played by Greg Cruttwell, a kind of British Patrick Bateman whose sense of entitlement is so unrealistic as to drag you out of the film. He's so artificial in the role, presumably on Leigh's orders, that it almost seems like he's been transported from a different kind of satire, even if his inclusion is ultimately intended to show what Johnny is not.

The final scene, of Johnny inevitably limping away, is one of the best in all of British film, a stark image that perfectly encapsulates Leigh's class themes: the poor, left dragging their feet, and of Johnny's position as a man whose self-loathing has left him literally and figuratively crippled. It might not quite feel like Leigh's best work today, but it is certainly up there, and Thewlis is remarkable. Few films leave one with quite so strong a sense of having wadded through the gutter.

Naked is now re-released in select UK cinemas.

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