Every now and again, a movie character will come along that is so fully developed, so convincing as a human being, and so completely transformed by its actor that the entire foundation of the movie is jarred. It doesn’t happen very often, but when it does, we can sense it; we can feel it; we can see it. We are affected by this character, and sometimes the movie may just be about it. Here, in Mike Leigh’s dark and very empty look at life on the streets of London, we have Johnny, a homeless man who is as knowledgable as any scholar, as obnoxious as a snobby teenage whiz kid who knows too much for his own good, and as pathetic as the ants you just killed with your foot.
He lives in a world that has spat him out, and the only way he seems able to seek revenge is by lecturing passers-by about unimportant things like the apocalypse, and the meaning of the Book of Revelations, and the joys of sex, and how working in mundane jobs gets you nowhere. He also has a strong tendency to answer questions with questions, or with sarcasm — “What are you doing here?”, “Well I was there just a moment ago but it did nothing for me, so now I’m here” — and he loves to insult. He shows no emotion, except the desire for sex — the movie opens with him aggressively raping a poor lady in a dingy alley — and when people scold him or kick him out, he cannot understand why. To him, he is bringing knowledge and enlightenment, and everyone is expected to be grateful. He is better than everyone else because he knows things, things that other people know too, but he places himself above them because he has nothing left to lose.
He has certainly had an education of some sort; he is extremely eloquent, and he reads. Logic tells me that he wouldn’t have picked up reading from begging for loose change. He must’ve gone to school, maybe even college or university. Maybe he studied theology, or biology, or architecture. He might have been the brightest in his class; that whiz kid I mentioned. He may even have been popular. But then something must’ve gone wrong, because now he is nobody. He is the scum the wealthy kick onto the curb and want nothing to do with. Whatever dreams and aspirations he once had are no longer etched in his mind. They are gone, leaving him naked in a world that would’ve killed him if he hadn’t retained his intellect.
To fully appreciate his character — but not understand it — you have to watch him closely throughout the entire movie, and observe him. Watch the way he interacts with people; with strangers, with Sophie (Katrin Cartlidge), with his former girlfriend, Louise (Lesley Sharp), and with Louise’s roommate, Sandra (Claire Skinner). What might strike you the most is that he treats them all equally. He doesn’t favour Louise by sparing her some sarcasm. No, she, too, has to absorb his teasing. The only difference is, she knows how to do it. They share a history, and this history follows them from Manchester to London, where both are seeking solace, refuge, and a new life, but only one finds it.
Johnny is played by David Thewlis, who was relatively unknown before this movie’s release. He spent months working closely with director Mike Leigh, fleshing out the character by improvising dialogue and scenarios. Most of his lines in the movie are based on these improvisation sessions; they are not scripted. Johnny’s entire life isn’t scripted. He floats from one experience to another, hoping that the next will mean more than the previous one, but what he fails to realise is that the average man or woman doesn’t want to hear about problems and catastrophes that will shatter their lives. They want to be happy living the life they live. In one of the movie’s more poetic and beautiful scenes, Johnny chances upon a security guard of a commercial building. The guard is about to do his rounds, and Johnny is about to tag along and spark a debate that he is determined to win. He follows the guard around the empty corridors and rooms, proclaiming the power of god and the power of the devil, speaking of evolution and the transcendence of Man as if he wrote the blueprint of the universe. The guard, for a moment, appears to be annoyed, but then he becomes involved, and he argues certain points. Whether he’s merely humouring Johnny, we don’t know, but Johnny loves it. He loves the response. Together, they spy on a middle-aged woman from across the street who loves to dance in front of her window. The guard admits to frequently watching her, and maybe she dances for him. “Have you got a hard on?”, Johnny asks.
And in the blink of an eye, his carnal desires kick in. He approaches the lady’s apartment and proceeds to physically abuse her in the name of sex. Is he a misogynist? Watch the way he treats every single woman in the movie and you’ll have your answer. In his world there is only room for two people: Himself, and the person who kicks him out.
It’s a very harsh statement to make, but Johnny makes his own life harsh. The tragedy of the character is that he chooses to be a degenerate. He has within him what it takes to be successful. All he has to do is stop feeling sorry for himself and start the slow murder of his ego. I said before that he has nothing to lose; indeed he hasn’t. It’s precisely why he feels invincible. He is surrounded by people, but they all seem dumbed down to make way for the power of his brain. Even the scary and rich landlord, played by Greg Cruttwell, is a two-dimensional plank. He gets off on torturing women mentally, then physically, then mentally again, and he’s about as sane as Charles Manson. He’s there, in the movie, to let us know that Johnny isn’t the only crazy person; that Johnny might even be better off because he doesn’t own property, suits, or a Porsche. Johnny is the sympathetic one of the two. Maybe even the hero.
The streets of London are cold in Naked. Every shot seems to be tinted with the slightest hint of blue. No doubt the coldness of the city is meant to reflect the coldness of its residents. And the coldness of Johnny is meant to be the coldest. He is the movie. He makes it with his words and with his wisdom, and even with his sardonic attitude towards human beings. The character is so whole that we feel we’ve met him before, on some street, in some town that is just as cold. Even the name Johnny is one we feel we can call out and expect a response to. What Thewlis has done with this man is remarkable, and what Leigh has done with his life is even better. You with me?