“Have you got a goblet or something? Because my heart’s bleeding.” This film was the receptacle for some of the most sulphurous outpourings of fear and rage and non-compassion in Mike Leigh’s career, and gave us a great monster of British cinema: the insufferable lippy wideboy and pseudo-intellectual Johnny, a character roiling internally with despair, with whom David Thewlis made his horribly watchable breakthrough in a 132-minute guitar-solo of a performance.
Naked’s rerelease after nearly 30 years gives us the perspective to ask the question: is Johnny a rapist? Is he supposed to be a rapist? And what of the other young male character – a borderline-psychopathic posh yuppie who is apparently Johnny’s ex-girlfriend’s landlord? He appears to be a rapist too, or at least, like Johnny, a fan of rough sex in which consent is a grey area.
Our first vision of Johnny is of him having sex with, or raping, someone in a dark Manchester alley. She screams at him afterwards that revenge is on the way and so Johnny – a gaunt, unshaven, coat-wearing Manc bloke, a lost Gallagher brother from hell who speaks like a nonstop smartarse NME interviewee – makes his way to London, intending to crash with his ex-girlfriend Louise (Lesley Sharp) at the address she has incautiously given him. She lives there with Sophie (Katrin Cartlidge) and Sandra (Claire Skinner), a nurse who is away on holiday in Zimbabwe. Johnny promptly seduces Sophie in that way that no one in 1993 called “problematic” and then, suddenly unable to endure being in the same flat with two women who now have an emotional claim on him, he finds himself roaming around London in a giant peripatetic journey of despair.
He encounters drunk Glaswegian Archie (Ewen Bremner), and nervy security-guard Brian (Peter Wight), who lets him into the empty office complex from whose high window Johnny sees a woman in the opposite building, played by Deborah MacLaren, and he has a poignant encounter with her; then with a cafe-waitress played by Gina McKee; and finally he meets a guy putting up posters (Darren Tunstall) who gives him the horrible beating he’s been more or less asking for. Finally, Johnny’s Odyssean wandering brings him back to Louise’s house (having cheekily already praised Homer in an earlier scene), where hideous yuppie Jeremy (Greg Crutwell) is also to be found – a character maybe inspired by American Psycho, a novel that had come out two years previously.
Naked is another of the Dickensian grotesqueries that Mike Leigh can create so fluently, and it is one of the great paradoxes of his career that despite devising them through improvisation, no other director makes films that sound so elaborately written. The sheer fanatical stamina of Johnny the provoker, Johnny the pisstaker, who won’t stop until someone puts him in A&E, is awe-inspiring. There is also his impressively unrepentant behaviour at the end; I can’t see it without thinking of the Seinfeld dictum: no hugging, no learning. All the time, Johnny is talking, talking; never once does he back down or come off it; he’s always posturing or browbeating.
And Johnny is a predator, an abuser whose evident anguish and self-hate does not entitle him to a moment of our pity. He is at the centre of a fiercely pessimistic story that is not leavened, as many of Leigh’s films are, with redeeming features. This is a movie of virtuoso nihilism and scorn.