Saturday, August 06, 2011

Naked (Expanded Criterion DVD Review)

Originally Written and Posted at on 8/23/05 w/ Extensive Revisions & Additional Content.

One of Britain's most celebrated and independent directors, Mike Leigh has made most of his films surrounding the working class and their dysfunctions around the world. Starting out with small features for BBC and for British cinema, Leigh's early films contained mostly dramatic insights on British, working-class citizens from the early 70s to the 80s. In 1989, Leigh finally gained international recognition with his 1989 drama High Hopes which was a satire of British society in the post-Margaret Thatcher world. 1990's Life is Sweet also showed his dark view of society by having a bulimic woman as his protagonist. Then in 1993, Leigh shook things up even more with a far more controversial film about an unemployed philosopher who embarks on a journey around his surroundings while belittling those who are weaker to him entitled Naked.

Written and directed by Leigh, Naked is a journey of sorts about a disenfranchised man who doesn't have a job but has an intellectual charm as he grabs a car, meets his ex-girlfriend's roommate, and wanders around London talking philosophy and having his way with women. The film is also a commentary on the post-Thatcher society where Britain is still in chaos with its protagonist meandering about everything he can think of while dealing with people in an emotional and mental way. Starring David Thewlis, Katrin Cartlidge, Lesley Sharp, Greg Cruttwell, Claire Skinner, Ewen Bremner, Gina McKee, and Susan Vidler. Naked is a brutal, harrowing journey that questions the moralities of the world through its troubling protagonist.

After raping a woman and stealing a car, Johnny (David Thewlis) drives from Manchester to London to meet up with his ex-girlfriend Louise (Lesley Sharp). Arriving at her flat, Johnny meets Louise's roommate Sophie (Katrin Cartlidge) where they befriend each other as they wait for Louise who isn't happy to see Johnny. While Sophie enjoys having Johnny around, Louise isn't sure though he isn't a totally bad guy in comparison to their brutish landlord Jeremy (Greg Cruttwell). After Sophie gets too close, Johnny leaves to venture around London as he encounters various people including an angry Scot named Archie (Ewen Bremner) and his girlfriend Maggie (Susan Vidler).

With Johnny's encounters with various people having go into existential and spiritual discussions as he converses with a nightwatchman named Brian (Peter Wight). The two men see a woman (Deborah MacLaren) where Johnny has sex with her as she struggles with her fading looks. Johnny continues to wander around London as he flirts with a depressed waitress (Gina McKee) and harass a chauffeur (Robert Putt) while going into various discussions about everything and anything. Back at Louise's flat, Jeremy pretending to be another man asks Sophie about another roommate named Sandra (Claire Skinner). Sophie's encounter with Jeremy proves to be horrifying as he's already harassed a masseuse (Carolina Giametta) and raped a waitress (Elizabeth Berrington).

When Louise returns home to see Jeremy, she and Sophie wait for Johnny to return only to see him beaten and battered. With Sophie more intent to cling onto Johnny, Louise deals with Jeremy while awaiting Sandra's return.

When watching a film like this right in front of you, do not expect to have any likeable or happy-like moments. Leigh's aim for the film is simply to convey a brutality driven by bleakness and the question of existence. In some ways, the film is also like The Odyssey by Homer, which was referenced in the film, since it's about a man's journey through London in trying to find answers about humanity while challenging those with his view of the world. It's not a film to watch at first viewing but it does leave the viewers talking. The film's treatment of women will definitely be something that many of its female viewers will be offended by but Leigh isn't being sexist since some of his characters are heroines. The treatment on women from the viewpoint of Johnny and Jeremy. Johnny may be abusive but he actually listens to women and comforts them with his charm and wit. Jeremy though is a full-on misogynist who takes carnal pleasure in abusing women.

Leigh's been known for making a film, getting his actors together, and not bringing in a script leaving actors to improvise. That improvisation seems to work where the actors have a sense of themselves in what they want to do for the character while remaining true to the story. The film has several themes to pin-point on whether it's about the existence of humanity and conformity which is something Johnny wants to rebel against since he doesn't want to live by society's rules. The film may have a bleak outlook on the world and humanity, particularly in post-Thatcher Britain but Leigh chooses to try to find some glimmer of hope in the eyes of one man.

Leigh's improvisational writing and viewpoints that is in his script plays to his directing style since he aims for a gritty, brutal approach that makes the audience uncomfortable. Leigh is definitely confrontational in his directing style and his choices of locations for London and Manchester is inspiring for the fact that he refuses to show any kinds of landmarks and famed streets. Instead, Lee goes for the nitty-gritty by showing depressing places and dirty streets. It's really a film of the streets. Helping Lee capture that vision is his longtime cinematographer Dick Pope who brings a grainy, natural quality to the film without any kind of artificial light or anything glossy. Pope chooses to shoot London as it is as if the audience is there which is very colorless and very gray.

Helping the film in its interior looks of the apartments are production designers Alison Chitty and Steven Jones-Evans and art director Eve Stewart who decorate the film with such things for the characters whether it's the Greek statues or the anatomy posters for Sandra. Costume designer Lindy Hemming also shines for his drab, ordinary clothing for most of the cast but a Goth-punk like look for Sophie, and all black, trench-coat style look for Jeremy that is a precursor to what he would do with Batsuit in Batman Begins. Editor Jon Gregory manages to pull in a tight, leisurely-paced editing style to the film that makes the 130-minute feature seem to go with ease where Leigh's direction helps draw the audience into what's going on. The musical score of Andrew Dickson also captures the bleakness of its melancholia with its piano and harrowing string arrangements.

The film's large cast is wonderfully inspiring, especially if they're in a Mike Leigh film where they're given freedom to put themselves in characters. With such small stand out roles from Carolina Giammetta and Elizabeth Berrington as the women who are harassed by Jeremy to the roles of Darren Tunstall and Robert Putt as the working men that Johnny annoys. There is a wonderful moment in those performances including memorable ones from Ewen Bremner and Susan Vidler as the Scottish couple who are so dirty and misled, it's no wonder that Johnny takes pity on them though Bremner is more memorable for his twitch. Deborah MacLaren is excellent in her performance as the woman in the window who is desperately trying to relive her youth in a very powerful performance. Gina McKee is also amazing as the depressed cafe` waitress who is very sad by her loneliness as she is one of the rare women Johnny seems to take pity on without being abusive.

Peter Wight gives a memorable and excellent supporting performance as Brian, a morally night-watchman who listens to Johnny but is still convinced that there is more out there than Johnny's bleak view of the world. Wight makes his character more than just another of Johnny's intellectual conquest since he knows that Johnny has some great insight but he is really the shining light that Johnny doesn’t want to believe. Leigh regular Claire Skinner is excellent in her brief appearance as the uptight Sandra who couldn't believe in the state of things as she arrives in the final act of the film. Skinner's brief appearance is memorable for the fact that she is different from Louise and Sophie in terms of responsibility. Greg Cruttwell is wonderfully nasty and vile as Jeremy with his hatred towards women and his control in a performance that audiences will love to hate. Cruttwell brings in every ounce of disgust and obscene behavior that it's very convincing in a very disturbing performance.

The late Katrin Cartlidge is amazing as the aloof, stoned, desperate Sophie who seems to find the answer in her relationship with Johnny despite his flaws. Yet when Johnny leaves and she is forced to deal with Jeremy, she realizes her vulnerability and her own regrets into her lifestyle as she depends more and more on Johnny in a performance that is amazing for the gifted actress who is sorely missed. Lesley Sharp is really the film’s strongest female performance as Johnny's ex-girlfriend who doesn't really like having him around yet she knows of his good qualities. Sharp holds her own in nearly every scene, especially around Cruttwell who tries to have his way with her but she gives a fearless confrontational performance as the rare heroine that is needed in the film.

Finally, there's David Thewlis in probably his best performance yet as the comical, intelligent, and sleazy Johnny. Thewlis uses his quick-wit and charming demeanor to win the audience over despite some of his abusive actions. Thewlis shines in every moment of the film as a man trying to discover the idea of existence while challenging the idea of why humanity is cease to be. There is never a dull moment in Thewlis' performance nor from the things he says since he says them in a profound, intelligent way. His scenes with the women in the film show the man in a rare form of sweetness despite the fact that he can be rough as he proves that by all means, he's not a good man but he’s not a bad one either. He's just a man as Thewlis brings balance to that kind of character.

***Additional Content Written from 7/30/11-8/5/11***

The 2005 2-disc Region 1 DVD (1-disc 2011 Blu-Ray) presents the film in its theatrical 1:85:1 widescreen aspect ratio plus Dolby Digital Stereo sound as part of a newly restored high-definition digital transfer that is supervised by its writer/director Mike Leigh. The first disc features the film plus English subtitles for the hearing impaired and its original theatrical trailer. The first disc also includes a feature-length audio commentary track from Leigh and actors David Thewlis and Katrin Cartlidge recorded back in 1994 when the film was released on laserdisc.

The commentary has Leigh talking about the film and his approach to directing and improvisation since he doesn’t really write any scripts. With Cartlidge joining him in some of the commentary, they talk about the film’s accusation of misogyny which as Cartlidge defends Leigh claiming that the critics who made those accusations are missing the point. Thewlis, on a separate recorded commentary, talks about Leigh’s approach to directing actors along with the fact that the film was largely shot on location. Notably as Thewlis said that trying to come up with things in the performance was hard as Leigh admits to shooting 26 takes of a key scene of Thewlis and Peter Wight having a conversation just so he can find the right tone.

Leigh also talks about why he opened the film with a rape scene which was to get people an idea of what character they would meet. Yet, that is eventually challenged by the Jeremy character as a way for people to find the good in Johnny as opposed to Jeremy. Leigh reveals that Greg Cruttwell, who plays Jeremy, is nothing like the character he plays as was really the nicest person on set. Cartlidge reveals that a lot of biographical information was made for the characters but Leigh chose not to reveal too much so the audience can interpret while Thewlis reveals that a lot of scenes were cut because of length reasons. The overall commentary is very informative and engaging about the film and Leigh’s unique approach to directing.

The second disc of the DVD features an array of special features relating to the film. The first is a twelve-minute interview with filmmaker Neil LaBute on the film. LaBute discusses the film’s themes as well as a couple of key characters in the film such as Johnny and Louise. LaBute reveals that the film is partially about isolation in a world where things don’t make much sense anymore as Johnny is a character who likes to shake things up. LaBute also talks about Mike Leigh’s approach along with the accusations critics have of Leigh being misogynistic which LaBute believes is untrue. It’s a very enjoyable yet relaxed interview from LaBute that really dwells into the brilliance of Naked.

The second featurette is a 30-minute excerpt from the British TV show The Art Zone where author Will Self interviews Mike Leigh about his filmmaking methods at Leigh‘s favorite pub in London. Leigh talks about parts of his career while Self opens the segment with his fascination towards Leigh’s work, particularly Naked. Leigh discusses the way he collaborates his actors where they discuss about trying to find the characters in the film so the actors can get a chance to figure out how to approach their role and make it their own. Leigh also refutes the accusations as a misogynist by stating that the women he work with are far tougher feminists than the ones who claim he’s misogynist. It’s a pretty compelling piece that is interesting though lags at time as it’s a great piece for any hardcore fan of Mike Leigh.

The last big special feature is a 17-minute short film entitled The Short and Curlies that stars David Thewlis and Alison Steadman. It’s the story about a drugstore clerk who falls for a young man as she talks to a chatty hairdresser who is dealing with her depressed daughter. It’s a very charming short with elements of humor with Steadman as the hairdresser and Thewlis as the young man who often spouts jokes. The short also includes a feature-length commentary track from Leigh where he talks about the short and performances. Most notably about the fact that it was Leigh’s first 35mm film since 1971’s Bleak Moments which would make him return to feature films. It’s a wonderfully witty commentary on Leigh who talks about the production and his emphasis into making this great short.

The DVD set includes a booklet that features two different essays about the film. The first is Desperate Days by British film critic David Malcolm. Malcolm talks about the film’s brilliance as well as the complexity of the characters in the dreary setting the film is in. Malcolm also talks about the fact that Leigh is critical to both men and women in this film while also being sympathetic to some of those characters with the exception of Jeremy. Malcolm’s essay is truly intriguing over the film that he believes is one of the best films to come out of Britain.

The second is essay entitled The Monster We Know from New York City film critic Amy Taubin. Taubin’s essay is about the film’s supposed misogyny which she believes is false as she focuses on Johnny and his behavior towards women which she thinks is much more complex. She also talks about Jeremy who is much more brutal and comes from a very different world from Johnny as Taubin’s essay is very compelling about the film’s study of men and their flaws. The overall work on the DVD is phenomenal as is it something that fans of Leigh should own.

***End of DVD Tidbits***

Naked is a brutal, confrontational, yet intelligently viable masterpiece from Mike Leigh led by David Thewlis' worldly performance. It is among one of Leigh's best films as well as his most confrontational about society and alienation. Still, this is not a film that is easy to watch but with repeated viewing, it becomes more understanding. Though many may not agree with the actions of the protagonists or Leigh's existential views, it is one of the most profound and powerful films of British cinema.

Mike Leigh Films: (Bleak Moments) - (Hard Labour) - (The Permissive Society) - (Knock for Knock) - (Nuts in May) - (Abigail's Party) - (Kiss of Death) - (Who's Who) - (Grown-Ups) - (Home Sweet Home) - (Meantime) - (Four Days in July) - (High Hopes) - Life is Sweet - Secrets & Lies - Career Girls - Topsy-Turvy - All or Nothing - Vera Drake - Happy-Go-Lucky - Another Year - Mr. Turner

(C) thevoid99 2011

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