I’ve made no secret throughout this list of my subscription to the auteur theory. I find myself carried away praising directors to the rafters while far less time has been spent commending actors for their equal contributions. In sharing my thoughts on Naked, I realize that I must reconcile this trend. Few directors make a case for film as a collaborative medium as strong as Mike Leigh. Few actors have ever torn apart the screen like David Thewlis as back-alley philosopher Johnny.
Naked begins in the darkest of places, with Johnny fleeing the scene of an attempted rape and retreating to London. His contemptible opening actions are alienating at best, and in any other film would have been labeled unforgivable, but for Thewlis and Leigh, Johnny’s transgressions are merely the jumping point for this epic and harrowing character study. Johnny is damaged, and he delights in letting others into his own damaged world, but he is no villain. As a brilliant orator hampered by situation and so blinded by his contempt for class that he can’t seem to help himself, he commands pity, but also a certain degree of respect. His education and silver tongue seem at odds with his situation, but whatever his improbabilities, we buy into Johnny.
Oddly enough, the multiple dimensions of Johnny are further driven home by the film’s only two-dimensional character, Jeremy, the sadistic landlord presiding like a shadow over the lives of Johnny’s ex-girlfriend Louise and her roommate Sophie. His part in the film never fails to knock the narrative off balance, but it’s because of his unabashed evil that we can put Johnny’s shortcomings into some kind of perspective. Some would decry this as shameless manipulation, but that would only stand if Leigh were trying to justify Johnny’s actions. He doesn’t, and instead we’re given the opportunity to understand rather than outright condemn him. The final verdict on Johnny’s value to the human race remains in our hands, but long before the final devastating shot we’ve come to agree that characters, just like any real person, can be complicated.