Seldom Scene
Movie reviews by Gerald Panio

Naked (1993)


Johnny: “And what is it what goes on in this postmodernist gas chamber?

Night Watchman:  “Nothing.  It’s empty.”

Johnny:  “So what is it you guard, then?”

Night Watchman:  “Space.”

Johnny:  “You’re guarding space?  That’s stupid, isn’t it?  Because someone could break in there and steal all the f—– space and you wouldn’t know it’s gone, would you?

Night Watchman:  “Good point.”


Louise:  “Were you bored in Manchester?”

Johnny:  “Was I bored?  No, I wasn’t bored!  I’m never bored.  That’s the trouble with all of you.  You’ve had nature explained to you and you’re bored with it.  You’ve had the living body explained to you and you’re bored with it.  You’ve had the universe explained to you and you’re bored with it.  So now you want new thrills and plenty of ‘em and it doesn’t matter how tawdry or vacuous.  As long as it’s new, ask long as it’s new, as long as it flashes and fuckin’ bleeps in 40 fuckin’ different colours.  Whatever else you can say about me I’m not fuckin’ bored.  So how’s it going with you?”

Louise:  “I’m a bit bored, actually.”


Some souls aren’t simply lost.  They’re trashed.  Drugs. Alcohol.  Abuse.  Mental illness.  These souls are destined to crash and burn.  As they implode or explode, the flames sear everyone around them.

But they are still loved.

There’s something in every soul that’s indestructible.  An innate genius that shines its way through any number of layers of physical and emotional garbage.  A parent may recognize it.  A brother or a sister.  A lover.  A priest.  A friend.  Each may see a heart and mind that the rest of society has turned from in revulsion or condescension.

Sadly, love is not always salvation.

The damage will, as often as not, still be done.  Some trajectories towards oblivion are unstoppable.  Those continually seeking the devil at the crossroads will find him there.  But, in the end, they will not go unmourned.  Those who have seen that spark of genius, undimmed, will bear witness to it.

Some will transmute it into art.

Mike Leigh’s Naked (1993) is alchemical.  On one level, and along with Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, it’s the ugliest film I have ever reviewed.  Ugly language.  Ugly sex.  Ugly flats.  Ugly city.  Ugly, brutal, cynical, stupid, feckless people.  This is the kind of world where people answer a question like “Do you live ‘ere?” with “I do, unfortunately.”  Where “Do you have any brothers and sisters?” is answered by “I try not to remember.” Or where the natural answer to the question “Does she like you?” is “Most people don’t.”  Cinematographer Dick Pope manages to create a visual landscape of stark contrast, of claustrophobic stairwells and darkened alleys that make post-War Berlin look cheerful by comparison.  Andrew Dickinson’s cascading minimalist music score of harp, viola and double bass could be the sound of the clock ticking down to Armageddon.

Is this really the cinematic environment in which you want to spend over two hours?  It is.  Art exists in part to redeem suffering.  In Naked, Mike Leigh and his actors and his crew have delivered one of the most passionate eulogies in modern cinema.  Even better, they’ve allowed the central character, Johnny (in a multiple-award-winning performance by David Thewlis), to deliver it while he’s still very much alive.  In the midst of every conceivable kind of ugliness, Johnny’s nonstop verbal improvisations are breathtaking.  For every profanity uttered, there’s a flash of wit, a turn of phrase, a free-form metaphysical ramble that lingers in the mind long after Johnny’s hobbled his way into oblivion. Isn’t it a fitting irony that, for a film I’ve called the ugliest I’ve reviewed, I’ve recorded more dialogue in my notes than for any other?  And here’s another irony:  At the same time this review is coming out, so is the latest filmed version of another of Shakespeare’s tragedies.  It’s Titus Adronicus, Shakespeare’s goriest production.  Coincidentally also filled with ugly, brutal, cynical, stupid, feckless people.  The main difference between Johnny and Titus:  Johnny has better lines.

There are a lot of people as bright and as doomed as Johnny out there in the real world.  They’re like sharks who have to keep moving and hustling and talking to survive. Unfortunately, unlike sharks, they’re closer to the bottom of the food chain than the top.  A lucky few, the Villons, the Rimbauds, the Célines, the Kerouacs and Kurt Cobains, manage to stop moving long enough to get their words on record before they’re swallowed up.  Those words dazzle us and challenge us.  To borrow Johnny’s from one of his diatribes against Divinity, he’s got a few fundamental questions for all of us.  God is not spared.  Neither are friends, or lovers, or a lonely waitress in a café, or a pair of Scottish drifters, or a guy sticking up Megadeath and Pantera posters.  The response to Johnny’s use of language is variable:  worship, affection, bewilderment, rage.

Words are so powerful in this movie.  Johnny’s got a book in his hand as often as he’s got a cigarette in his mouth.  A cheap display of elephants on the mantlepiece becomes, in Johnny’s vernacular, “the old diminishing pachyderm formation there”.  A tattoo is an “ornithological mutilation”.  A challenging knot in a corset becomes “a granny, a sheepshank, or the infamous round and two half-hitches as mentioned in the book of Ezekiel.”  Every conversation he gets into walks a knife edge between fostering illusions and shattering them.  The things he says, the questions he asks, tend to tear painful holes in whatever fragile cocoons in which his listeners have wrapped themselves.  Johnny can talk with anybody.  He just can’t guarantee that anyone, himself included, will survive the conversation.  In one of his most despairing, bitter moments—suddenly rejected where he’s least expected it—he says, “No matter how many books you read, there is something in this world that you never ever ever ever ever fucking understand.”  Another sad irony:  any time Johnny talks to someone intelligent enough to appreciate his verbal sleight of hand, or maybe love him for it, he suddenly feels too threatened to stick around.  He doesn’t want to be understood.  The only shield for his very tattered armor is his sense of operating on a plane that can’t be pigeon-holed by anyone.

It’s a very lonely world when you despise the stupid and the clever.

Although David Thewlis’s performance is a tour de force (and the fact that he wasn’t even nominated for an Oscar an excellent illustration of the Academy’s limited vision), every actor in Naked is superb.  Lesley Sharp plays Louise, an ex-lover of Johnny’s who’s trying to lead a “normal” working life in a London devoid of any sense of home.  When she asks Johnny if he wants to see her room, he says “Is there anything worth seeing?”  She suddenly realizes there isn’t.  Katlin Cartlidge is Sophie, a victim in every sense of the word—addled by drugs, jobless, open to every sexual predator drawn by her pheromones.  Drawn in by Johnny’s metaphysical rants is Peter Wight as Brian, the night watchman–a lonely man with a pointless job that allows him too much time to think and too little to interact with other people.  And then there’s Ewen Bremner’s cruel and hilarious portrait of a young Scots drifter.  Will anyone ever again take punks entirely seriously?

One of the main reasons that we can empathize with the characters in Naked, no matter how immoral or self-destructive they may be, comes from the unique way in which Mike Leigh goes about making his movies.  He suggests a theme, and then he and his actors create the script in rehearsals. He films improvisations based on that script.  The end result is realistic dialogue with none of the artificiality that sometimes tries to pass itself off as Art.

At this point, I would like to present my own special Oscar for the Best Supporting Performance In A Role That Shouldn’t Be In The Movie In The First Place.  And the winner is Greg Cruttwell as Jeremy, one of the most repulsive characters ever brought to the screen.  Director’s Leigh’s leftist politics got in the way of his better judgement.  He needed a straw pig: a nouveau riche, Porsche-driving rapist to demonstrate that in the class war even a low-life like Johnny can be out-slimed by a psycho from the upper classes.  What an astonishing revelation.  Gosh, who woulda thunk it?  Cruttwell succeeds in being supremely loathsome, but Mike Leigh could have cut every one of his scenes.  There’s enough that is harrowing in Naked without throwing in cheap polemics on Class Consciousness.

At the end of Naked, Johnny is putting himself through a lot of pain to hobble off to nowhere.  As usual, he’s already summed up his situation better than anyone else could:  “I’ve got an infinite number of places to go, the problem is where to stay.”


Looking Back & Second Thoughts

Johnny: In London, you’re only ever 30 ft. away from a rat.


Johnny:  No matter how many books you read, there is something in this world that you never ever ever ever ever fucking understand.


Louise:  What are you doing here?  You look like shit.

Johnny:  I’m just tryin’ to blend in with the surroundings.


Johnny: D’you dream in Scotch?

Archie: Eh?

Johnny: Like dream about sporran-clad, caber-tossing haggis galloping over porridge-covered glens?

Nihilism.  Anarchy.  Five minutes into re-watching Naked, I was asking myself why in the hell I would have chosen this movie to review.  Ten minutes in, David Thewlis’s performance fully kicked in and I remembered.  Thewlis’s Johnny is the bastard son of Oscar Wilde and Charles Bukowski and sweeps all before him with a whirlwind of verbal pyrotechnics (“diminishing pachyderm formations,” “ornithological mutilations”), cutting wit, barbed questions, loathing of self & others, and a staggering capacity to channel empathy and bile in the same breath.  He lives in an endless nightmarish present with no future, sustained by random encounters that are his only salvation from the mind-numbing boredom of trying to relate to pathetic creatures ignorant of their utter inconsequentiality in the face of the cosmos.  In his own words, he’s a man who’s always got somewhere to go, but nowhere to stay.  He’s a king’s Fool, and all four horsemen of the Apocalypse rolled into one.  God help anyone with a fragile ego who happens to cross his path—he’s the therapist from hell.  A session with Johnny is a likely lead-in to confusion, shame, despair, dismay, violence, and unemployment.  Not only is there no silver lining, but the universe is going to piss on you every chance it gets.  After all, what’s to say you haven’t already had the happiest moment of your life and it’s all downhill from here on?  In a commentary on Naked, Neil Bute points out the David Thewlis gives a brilliant demonstration of acting as reaction to other characters, rather than action for its own sake.

I love the work of all of the actors in this film:  Leslie Sharp’s no-nonsense, long-suffering Louise; Katrin Cartlidge’s walking-wounded Sophie; Ewan Bremner and Susan Vidler’s star-cursing lovers, Archie & Maggie; and Peter Wight’s hapless night watchman Brian.  I’d also say something flattering about Greg Cruttwell as Jeremy, except I don’t really understand what he’s doing in this movie.  It’s as if Christian Bale wandered into Leigh’s film from the set of American Psycho.  Is there really a dramatic point to Jeremy, or was Leigh not quite sure that Thewlis, Sharp, and Cartlidge could carry the film on their own?  As a study in sexual sadism, Jeremy is a movie unto himself.  His every appearance in this one is merely a distraction from Thewlis’s main event.

Leslie Sharp has had a solid career, and continues to work at the time I’m writing this (2020).  Katrin Cartlidge career was cut short; she died in 2002, at age 41, from pneumonia and septicemia.  Ewan Bremner has over 100 acting credits as of 2020.  Susan Vidler has worked mainly in television.  Peter Wight must be one of the hardest-working actors in England, with 147 credits on Imdb.  Greg Cruttwell seems to have given up acting after 1997.  David Thewlis is currently just shy of 100 credits and deserves to win a few more awards than he has.  Director Mike Leigh has been nominated for seven Oscars, having made 9 feature films since Naked.  Give the guy a break, already.

For me, the three highlights of Naked on this second viewing were Johnny’s monologue (linking Revelations, Nostradamus, wormwood, bar codes, Chernobyl, and Universal Consciousness) in Brian’s empty office building, his monologue on walls with Poster Man, and his final stumbling yet relentless walk off the screen at the end.

I was also impressed by Andrew Dickson’s minimalist score and Dick Pope’s cinematography.  Pope manages to highlight Johnny’s humanity while unsparingly capturing an urban landscape of desolation, sterility, and tawdriness.  Dickson has scored only 7 feature films, while Pope has 64 credits as cinematographer (including two Oscar nominations, for Mr. Turner and The Illusionist).

An ideal double bill:  Naked and Bruce Robinson’s Withnail & I.

Worthwhile checking out, two Criterion Collection essays on Naked, available through Imdb’s External Reviews section.  One essay is Derek Malcolm’s “Naked: Desperate Days”; the other is Ian Buruma’s “Naked.”

Movie Information

Genre: Drama
Director: Mike Leigh
Actors: David Thewlis, Leslie Sharp, Katrin Cartlidge, Ewan Bremner, Susan Vidler, Peter Wight, Greg Cruttwell
Year: 1993
Original Review: February 2000


Who are the Tomatometer-approved Critics?

If you’re interested in checking out the critics who contribute to the Rotten Tomatoes website, they’re all here.  Along with how to apply if you want to join their ranks.  You can also click on the name of any of dozens of critics to see her/his latest reviews, check out the publications for which they write, check out the critics workshops, and access a long list of associations & societies of film critics.  Choosing randomly, I checked out Adama Adame’s review of Tolkien.  She writes for Cine Pemiere, a Spanish-language film journal. Her conclusion:

La cinta se concentra más en complacer a los fans de la saga al plantar easter eggs y referencias sobre la Tierra Media, lo cual la hace perder parte de su cualidad biográfica y realista. Tolkien es una cinta que le da más prioridad al estilo que a la sustancia. Aun así, el filme resulta una experiencia disfrutable, particularmente para la audiencia que esté interesada en diseccionar la imaginación tan fascinante del autor que creo una de las obras de fantasía más trascendentales de la literatura. 

Fatal Instincts: The Dangerous Pout of Gloria Grahame

From Bright Lights Film Journal, this is New York-based critic Dan Callahan’s profile of a film noir femme fatale extraordinaire and the “girl with the novocaine lip.”  In addition to films like Mama’s Dirty Girls (1974), Gloria Grahame was also Jimmy Stewart’s bad girl in It’s a Wonderful Life (1946).  She was discovered by Louis B. Mayer, and earned an Oscar nomination for Crossfire (1947).  She won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her performance in Vincente Minnelli’s The Bad and the Beautiful (1952).  Husband Nicholas Ray gave her a rare lead role in his film In a Lonely Place (1049).  Callahan calls Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat (1953) her “best film and most touching, complete performance.”  From the article:

“Say her name out loud, and it even sounds like her: Gloria Grahame, fancy and earthy at once, tart, ungraspable. She generally makes her entrance on-screen accompanied by a wail of hot jazz, eating candy, applying lipstick to that puffy mouth, flipping her dirty hair and cheap hoop earrings, extending her toned legs so we can see her shapely feet tied up in ankle-strap high heels. Her perversity knows no limits on-screen; in life, she was capable of sleeping with the 13-year-old son of her second husband, Nicholas Ray (she later married this stepson and bore him sons). She could never deny her impulses, and her wantonness made and then destroyed an exciting career in movies.”

Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia claims that Grahame “played more shady women (and outright tramps) than any other female performer on-screen during the late 1940s and 1950s.  Even when she portrayed good girls, Grahame, often layered her characterizations with unsympathetic traits.”  David Thompson, in his The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, begins his entry on Grahame with a quote from English critic Judith Williamson, describing her in Human Desire:  “…she seems to represent a sort of acted-upon femininity, both unfathomable and ungraspable.  She slips through the film like a drop of loose mercury.  Neither we nor the other characters know whether to believe what she says; elusive as a cat, she is the focus of terrible actions, but unknowable herself.”

When Your Movie is a Hit for All the Wrong Reasons

A New York Times article by Sarah Lyall about James Franco’s film about the making of one of the most notoriously bad cult films ever.  That cult film was Tommy Wiseau’s The Room (2003), and Franco’s film is called The Disaster Artist (2917).  The Room cost $6 million, and pulled in $1,800 on its first weekend.  It currently has a 3.7 rating on Imdb.  It’s also one of the biggest cult movie sensations since The Rocky Horror Picture Show. From the article:

“We became obsessed with it,” [Seth Rogan] said in a telephone interview. “It is particularly fascinating to comedy people. Most movies that are this catastrophically bad are in a genre that contributes to their failure — like a science-fiction film that didn’t have the budget for what they were trying to do — but this is a character drama that’s really personal. The fact that this guy made all these choices was so strange.”

Films Worth Talking About:

Schindler’s List, El Mariachi, Groundhog Day, Point of No Return, Falling Down, La Scorta (The Escort), Much Ado About Nothing, The Piano, Farewell My Concubine, Jurassic Park, Cliffhanger, Like Water for Chocolate, In the Line of Fire, Sleepless in Seattle, The Joy Luck Club, Short Cuts, Three Colors Blue, The Age of Innocence, Germinal, A Bronx Tale, Demolition Man, The Remains of the Day, Philadelphia, What’s Love Got to Do With It, Tombstone, Kalifornia, Cronos, Cool Runnings, Sonatine, Naked, Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story, Manhattan Murder Mystery, Mrs. Doubtfire, Menace II Society, Les Visiteurs, Raining Stones, The Blue Kite, Benny & Joon, Searching for Bobby Fischer, Little Buddha, The Scent of Green Papaya, Swing Kids, Window to Paris

The Bigger Picture

FilmsSecrets & Lies (1996), Vera Drake (2004), Withnail & I (1987), Barfly (1987), Trainspotting (1996)

Music:  Tom Waits, Small Change

Books:  Charles Bukowski, Septuagenarian Stew; Ken Kesey, Demon Box; Alan Kaufman, Neil Ortenberg, and Barney Rosset, eds., The Outlaw Bible of American Literature; Andy Kaufman and S.A. Griffin, eds., The Outlaw Bible of American Poetry

The Word on the Street

Had a bad day? Then this is the equivalent of the Blues for the eyes and food for thought.   [Dodger-9]

There are precious few movies to which I would give a perfect rating and none so difficult to justify as Naked….So how do I justify it? I could witter on about the brilliance of David Thewlis’ performance, the excellent support cast, the devastatingly witty dialogue and Leigh’s assured direction until the cows came home, but this still wouldn’t totally do it. I can’t say a lot about the plot because, well, there isn’t a great deal of plot to speak of. So what is it?
I’ll tell you what it is: it’s the honesty of it. The brutal, searing, sickening honesty. Here is a film unafraid to hold a mirror up to the dark, venal, destructive underbelly of our society – a film that portrays relentlessly and unflinchingly a side of our character which we’d prefer to simply sweep under the carpet. It takes everything that is immoral, degenerate and depraved in modern society and smears it all over the screen in a grubby orgy of loathing. It is not simply a movie with teeth but one with rabid, venomous, acid-tipped fangs, tearing and gnashing at our pompous ideas about our own natures.
There are many movies which are fantastically enjoyable and make for a sterling night out with friends and family. This is not one of them. Naked is disturbing, unpleasant, frightening and utterly bleak. It is also quite brilliant.   [El_Farmerino_Esq]

This is a classic case of car-wreck film making: You don’t praise or celebrate much, yet it is deeply fascinating and even hypnotic. People are tap dancing on the edge of a metaphorical cliff – some are there of there of their own free will.   [Pedro_H]

There is no “story” here, except that of the distilled essence of the hopeless pre-Millenial Western man, robbed of the promised nuclear annihilation he had always consciously feared, but subconsciously hoped for, if only to put the world out of its misery. The naked and the lost, the wandering spectre of the sentient living dead, and the pitiful yet mercifully ignorant companions that cross his path.   [thearbiter]

Someone asked if the dialogue was improvised. According to IFC, Mike Leigh rehearsed with the cast for 11 weeks before writing the script, which then came to only 25 pages.   [mew-4]

This flick is over-scripted and over the top – a melodrama clumsily infused with pedestrian “philosophy” about the meaning of mankind, life, etc. It is trite, overwrought and tedious.
There are some very fine English films available with content similar to this film. “Nil by Mouth” is an excellent, far more interesting excursion into the lives of individuals in a similar social milieu. Ditto for “In the Warzone.” And although the comparison is not even warranted, check out anything by Peter Greenaway, who far more deftly handles dialogue, wit and absurd characters and situations.   [tiberius31]

Complete rubbish.
For a start, Johnny wouldn’t have lasted one day back in 90’s London done up as he was. That oily 70’s porno-moustache would have been torn clean off his face within 12 hours.
Secondly, why does Mike Leigh think ALL women are slags?
Thirdly, what’s with all the rape stuff? And what’s with the voyeurism? Er,…..Mike?
Fourthly, WTF is going on with the ending? My guess – based on his previous form: Johnny hops to the nearest phonebox to drink a bottle of vodka, pleasure himself over the phone-book, beat his head bloody against the door jamb, and collapse in a pool of vomit – all the while reading the Schrodinger equation aloud in a whining northern accent.
I really wish that had been the ending! And that then a steamroller – piloted by the security guard tersely singing ‘Any Old Iron’ in a monotone – had very slowly crushed said phonebox flat with Johnny inside, accompanied by his screams, imprecations, philosophical incantations and begging. Johnny’s last words would be ‘Tetley Tea Folk…Marquis de Sade…’.
Seriously, just because it was ‘cough, cough’ a bit different, doesn’t mean this film was great.
Please grow up, everyone.
Sigh.   [Namron7]

From the first scene Naked poses the question, “Can you handle this?” We follow Johnny, a brilliant masochist who doesn’t care about anyone, least of all himself. He trods along London philosophizing and smacking strangers with his forthright sarcasm and wit. Very much in the same vain as Irvine Welsh’s Acid House, Naked is a bumpy ride down the sad road of human despair and sadness.  [FuzzyWuzzy]

Mike Leigh seems to have three types of film – the unequivocally nice, the unequivocally grim and the in-between. Personally, my preference is for the in-between stuff (e.g. Secrets and Lies, All or Nothing). Naked is unequivocally grim and strong stuff, but is a fine example of Leigh’s work nevertheless….
We felt uncomfortable throughout this film and found the characters hugely frustrating as they consistently messed things up. But that is so often the point with Leigh’s work.
This is an excellent film.   [ian_harris]

Thewlis had read the equivalent of a small bookshop to prepare for the part, and the ever-present dog-eared paperbacks in Johnny’s satchel are like his theories; things to be picked up, appropriated or stolen, then put down. For the autodidact who expresses his sense of self though words, the permanent removal of those books will precipitate his breakdown.

That breakdown was “more or less real,” Thewlis told this writer, years later. “That’s how I felt – raging. The origin of it is where we experimented with him going inside himself. What I come out with at that point is fairly incoherent and ambiguous, and that’s based on this day we had which we used to refer to as the ‘Wobbly’. When we were filming the scene it was like ‘Okay let’s go there now’. I went to a bit of a strange place in my head. It was worth it.”
Thewlis still receives plaudits for Johnny, and still receives work off the back of it. Steven Spielberg once requested an audience with him, after Spielberg, Martin Scorsese and Brian De Palma spent a night arguing about the film.
“I get this quite a lot” he muses. “People either come up to me and say ‘You changed my life’, ‘That was me’, or ‘You said everything that I’ve ever thought’. A few religious nuts in America wrote to me saying ‘Remember, God loves you.’”   [Ali_John_Catterall]

I just don’t understand why people who don’t believe in the future for humanity make films about it.   [ozan1982]