Critics often incorrectly describe Mike Leigh's films as 'improvised. But not even the quickest, most gifted improviser in the world could come up with the torrent of quips, barbs, aphorisms, and ideas that spew from the mouth of Johnny, the motormouthed protagonist of Leigh's rawest, most controversial, and arguably best film, Naked. Instead, Leigh's characteristic working method has each project begins with a rough story outline. His hand-picked actors then start creating and researching their characters and improvising scenes. These improvisations are then turned into a carefully written and structured screenplay, which is what is filmed.
Johnny is the brilliant and terrifying creation of Leigh and his leading man, David Thewlis, who grabbed the opportunity of a lifetime with both hands and repaid Leigh's trust with one of the most memorable performances ever captured on film. His Johnny is beyond complex. He might be a genius, but he has no direction to channel his considerable intellect. He can be charming but capable of the most monstrous physical and verbal cruelty.
The film begins startlingly; within minutes, Johnny has stolen a car and fled his native Manchester for London to escape a beating. He arrives unannounced at the flat of his former girlfriend, Louise (Lesley Sharp, excellent as always), seducing her flatmate Sophie (the late, great Katrin Cartlidge) before taking off on a two-day odyssey around the capital. On the streets, he encounters a motley crew of characters, including a Scotsman with a violent temper (Ewan Bremner), a lonely security guard (Peter Wight), and an even more desolate waitress (Gina McGee). He subjects all of them to tirades about the existence of God, the Y2K apocalypse, chaos theory, and homelessness. Intercut with this are the adventures of a sexually predatory yuppy (Greg Crutwell, in a performance so convincing it sank a promising career) who will eventually cross paths with Johnny, Louise and Sophie in a final act that is somehow satirical, farcical, moving and haunting all at once.
There is much more to Naked than a razor-sharp script and a towering central performance backed by an equally gifted supporting cast. Naked is also Leigh's most cinematic film, with Dick Pope's stunning photography, which largely eschews primary colours, making post-Thatcher London look like a noirish wasteland. Leigh's regular composer, Andrew Dickson, also contributes one of the finest and most haunting scores of the 1990s. When the film competed at the 1993 Cannes Film Festival, Thewlis unsurprisingly took the Best Actor trophy. But the Jury also recognised that this was very much Leigh's film and awarded him the Best Director Prize.
Information published by Leisure and Culture Dundee.
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