They come sporadically, but are instantly identifiable: Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront, Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver, Samuel L. Jackson in Jungle Fever. Roles that launch actors into the upper echelons of master thespians, roles that reward the audience with the sense of seeing something terribly unique and profound, roles that could have only been played by one person to create such stunning results. And for David Thewlis — who’d been acting on screen since 1985 — it was Mike Leigh’s 1993 Naked that gave him such a role, a role that made much of the world stand up and notice. Our review of Naked on Blu-ray follows after the jump.
Leaving Manchester in a stolen car under the threat of violence, Johnny (Thewlis) goes to visit the home of ex-girlfriend Louise (Lesley Sharp). With Louise not home he makes the acquaintance of her flatmate Sophie (Katrin Cartlidge), and the two quickly seduce each other. But due to Sophie’s clingy nature, Johnny leaves the house to walk around London. First he runs into a young Scotsman named Archie (Ewen Bremmer) who’s looking for his girlfriend Maggie (Susan Vidler). Later, sitting outside an office building, he makes conversation with the night-watchman Brian (Peter Wright), to whom he espouses his theories about God and evolution. Brian’s been keeping his eye on a woman across the street (Deborah MacLaren), who Johnny goes over to seduce, only to realize she’s not the dream visage she was from afar, but a pathetic, drunken middle-aged woman.
While Johnny wanders, Sophie and Louise have to deal with their landlord Jeremy (Greg Cruttwell), who rapes Sophie for sport. The movie then reaches an incredible crescendo when Johnny meets a café girl (Gina McKee) who invites him home and lets him bathe. But as nice as Johnny tries to be, a communication breakdown leads to her kicking him out. From there Johnny finds himself on a downward spiral; assaulted twice, he later returns to Louise’s home for solace.
Hollywood was impressed with Thewlis. It led to a string of films (including 1996’s Dragonheart and The Island of Dr. Moreau) that obviously did not challenge him —it wasn’t until 1998’s Beseiged that he showed the first signs of life post-Naked. And yet nothing can dampen the greatness of his performance in this picture as the feral, brilliant, and fundamentally flawed Johnny; it’s the sort of lightning-in-a-bottle magic that makes film-watching worthwhile. Much of this brilliance can be credited to Thewlis directly — Leigh’s directing style allows his actors to create their own characters and dialogue. The project was also a transition point for Leigh. Although he achieved recognition with previous efforts like 1988’s High Hopes and 1990’s Life is Sweet, Naked netted him a Best Director award at Cannes (where Thewlis won Best Actor) and led to a decade of well received films, including Oscar nominees Secrets and Lies and Topsy Turvy).
As Neil LaBute says in the supplements, Naked isn’t about a specific theme or agenda — to its credit —instead it’s about characters who are struggling with their own isolation and despair. And what makes Johnny so compelling is that his intellect keeps him distant from those around him, despite his longing to be loved. As such, the story creates an interesting paradox for its lead character — the audience empathizes with Johnny and finds him compelling, but his behavior isn’t idolized.
Though the film has become dated for its pre-millennium tensions, such never downgrades the experience; rather, it serves to point out that Johnny’s theories (while gripping in discourse) are essentially the hypothesis of someone trying to make sense of it all and coming up as empty handed, just like everyone else. Though it’s impossible not to single out Thewlis for his work, the entire cast is extraordinary (as is the case in all of Mike Leigh’s films). Each performer brings a strong characterization, and even bit parts (by future leads like Gina McKee and Ewen Bremmer) suggest depths despite their brief time on screen.
Leigh often concentrates on families and ensembles; here, the focus on one character causes his cinematic flourishes stand out — Naked remains his most stylized movie. Working with longtime collaborator Dick Pope, and shot mainly at night, the sparse lighting and wide angles add to the picture’s sense of disconnect. And yet, as great as all the parts are, the success of the film rests on the shoulders of Thewlis’s performance and his constant, brilliant monologues.
The Criterion Collection presents Naked on Blu-ray widescreen (1.85:1) with DTS-HD 2.0 surround. The transfer is much better than the film’s previous DVD release, though the film has a rough-eged quality that is going to upset those who don’t like the grain. The film comes with an audio commentary by director Mike Leigh, David Thewlis, and the late Katrin Cartlidge, which was recorded for the 1994 Laserdisc release. The featurettes are “Neil LaBute on Naked” (13 min.), wherein LaBute waxes about his fandom of the film and offers a nice appreciation of the piece. “The Art Zone: ‘The Conversation'” (36 min.) is an interview of Leigh by British author Will Self for BBC 2 covering much of his career, but with a special focus on Naked. There’s also the 1987 short film by Leigh “The Short and Curlies” (17 min.), which marked the first time Thewlis and Leigh worked together and follows Joy (Sylvestra Le Touzel) and Clive (Thewlis) as their dating life revolves around the different hairstyles Joy tries out. The short film also comes with a commentary by Leigh. The film’s misleading theatrical trailer is also included. It’s a straight port of the DVD, but the remastered transfer is worth it if you’re a fan.
[Screencaps courtesy of DVD Beaver]