The idea for the critically acclaimed 1993 film Naked came when director Mike Leigh was still young and attending primary school. Leigh tells The Guardian that he began to consider the end of the world and the millennium because of a “very enlightened teacher who constantly reminded [him] that the next total eclipse would be in August 1999.” You might be wondering what the apocalypse has to do with the themes of Naked, but it turns out that many of Leigh’s projects begin this way. Leigh prefers to develop loose concepts and allow the stories and characters to grow naturally. According to The Guardian, the initial ideas for Mike Leigh’s movies “bear only a little relation to the finished film, which is always a character-driven drama.”
The development of the film, like most of Leigh’s initial concepts, was highly unconventional. Leigh met with actor David Thewlis (The Sandman, Harry Potter) before he knew what Naked would look like. They narrowed down Thewlis’ character by examining men they knew in real life and worked towards the fictional Johnny Fletcher through months of improvisation. As The Guardian recounts, at times the improvisation between actors David Thewlis and Ewan Bremner got so out of hand that the police would sometimes get involved; Thewlis says that he “got dangerously close to the character.”
These tactics paid off though and resulted in critical praise. Roger Ebert rated the film four out of four stars, saying that Mike Leigh ventures beyond the conventional modern movie and presents a stunning piece of cinema with “no plot, no characters to identify with, and no hope. But there is care.” Here is why the 1993 film Naked may be the best movie ever made about self-destruction.
Johnny Fletcher, the Problematic Antihero
The most apparent representation of self-destruction in Naked is Johnny Fletcher himself. The film follows Johnny after he rapes a woman in a Manchester alley and is chased away by her family. Seeking shelter and protection, Johnny arrives at his ex-girlfriend Louise’s apartment and proceeds to try to seduce her roommate. Soon after, Johnny gets bored and wanders back onto the street where he follows another woman home and is yet again chased and thrown back onto the street. He tries to pursue another woman in a bar but is put off by her tattoo.
He meets Archie, a man with Tourette Syndrome who is looking for his girlfriend, and Brian, a security guard of an empty building, but returns quickly to his drifting. Eventually, after being beaten up by a street gang, Johnny returns to his ex-girlfriend’s to find the landlord, an unstable rapist, who has raped Louise’s roommate, Sophie. After Louise persuades the psychotic landlord to leave, she and Johnny reconcile, but yet again he returns to wandering the streets.
Despite Johnny’s toxic attitude towards women and his tendency to poke the bear over and over again, the man is interestingly complex and in some moments, very charming. Johnny has fleeting episodes of poetic perspective and cynical wit, and is self-aware of his destructive behavior. Although he leaves violence and abuse in his wake, he offers insights about the end of the world and life itself. According to Taste of Cinema, it has been theorized that Johnny might be a “modern messiah” and a “flawed but forgiving Jesus attempting to change the lives of those in his sphere.” However, it is more likely that this violent character represents a darker and unbalanced version of our own reality. Johnny portrays a cyclical addiction to pain and violence, although he is provided with some points of exit.
The Self-Destruction is Made Real By the Cast
Upon watching Naked, there is something shockingly real about the responses and behavior of the film’s characters. This is likely due to Mike Leigh’s small, 25-page script and use of improvisation before the project was actually shot. As we mentioned earlier, The Guardian relays an episode of this improvisation where things got out of hand. David Thewlis, who portrays Johnny, was told by Leigh to wait on some church steps for another actor, Ewan Bremner, and to respond to Bremner as Johnny. Thewlis recalls that it was difficult to come out of character because “all of you is engrossed in what the character would do.” This explains why Johnny is so believable; not only do we believe the character, David Thewlis does too.
Thewlis tells The Guardian that he and the rest of the cast would go to the pub and other public places in character. Both Leigh and Thewlis say this process, though sometimes extreme, was “essential” for presenting fully-realized characters. Naked stars the late, great Katrin Cartlidge and Lesley Sharp, and both fell willingly into their characters of Sophie and Louise for extended periods of time as well. Each of these women feed into the themes of self-destruction as well, portraying women who fall for violent men and seemingly can’t help themselves. According to Criterion, Leigh praised Cartlidge’s ability to “lose herself in the character” but still maintain the “objective eye of an artist.” The cast, having lived in the self-destructive nature of their characters through months of improvisation, followed the natural, conflicted responses of their characters.
Despite the film’s realness and accurate portrayal of self-destruction, reactions to the film are mixed and question whether the project glorifies misogyny, considering how much abuse and suffering is onscreen. That being said, Naked presents characters who seem to be drawn to this destruction, particularly Johnny, even though it hurts them every time. Mike Leigh’s Naked is available for streaming on Amazon Prime Video in certain countries, and is available for purchase on Blu-ray and DVD from The Criterion Collection.