A corrosive fable of our addled age, "Naked," which opens today at the Charles, joins the small list of works that might be said to center on the tourist in hell.
I think of Leopold Bloom in Nighttown from Joyce's "Ulysses," Jimmy Stewart in George Bailey's alternate universe in "It's a Wonderful Life," or Yossarian in the Eternal City in "Catch-22." Then there's Herzog in Saul Bellow's "Herzog," wandering hysterically under Grand Central Station on a smoky Saturday midnight, to say nothing of John Updike's Rabbit driving through Maryland and Pennsylvania while trying to reach Florida in "Rabbit, Run." The point: Hell is where you find it.
Writer-director Mike Leigh finds it in today's London, a society without soul or mercy, as corrupt as it is attractive and as violent as it is vivid. His pilgrim is hardly innocent, and the progress he makes in the end goes nowhere, but it's quite a trip. If he's cracked, it's OK with him.
Johnny (David Thewlis, in the performance that won him Best Actor at last year's Cannes Film Festival) is a strange bird. He's working-class but self-educated in that showy, shallow way, in FTC search of love but seething with contempt, too good for all he meets and yet not good enough. He turns everything into moral dilemma, a kind of Schopenhauer without portfolio. A dark, caped figure almost like a wraith, he wanders the London underworld ranting and schmoozing with equal fervor.
Sometimes he meets kindness, and sometimes he gets his butt kicked.
Thewlis, who will never be mistaken for a matinee idol, is amazingly charismatic: sharp-tongued, vivid and commanding, a sly seducer, but a natural victim. And that's the movie: Johnny goes for a walk.
Johnny, first seen cohabiting with a prostitute in a Manchester alley, soon fecklessly steals a car because it's available and heads to London, where he has no idea what to do. Dumping the car, he tracks down an ex-girlfriend, but not before seducing her roommate.
And he's a good seducer. He pretends to listen, he's very funny, but most of all he's goal-oriented. Like a salesman, he's a good closer and, possessing a nice line of patter, he can usually con the poor dim creatures of his liking into saying yes. But what does he get out of it? Nothing, it appears, but a release from his own profound boredom.
The film amusingly cuts between Johnny and another, somehow meaner, seducer, an upper-class swell named Jeremy (Greg Cruttwell) who loves to call himself "Sebastian Hawkes," and for whom sex is essentially an act of unremitting hostility. He snorts with contempt at anybody, loves to walk around in his black underpants while imposing the institutional power of his situation on others (he's the landlord, he claims), all the while sneering, sniffing and pretending to be the late and very nasty Lawrence Harvey.
Jeremy is conceived as a foil to Johnny, but Cruttwell is so amusing you sometimes forget that Johnny's in the picture. But he is: Wandering through London after dark, he takes up adventure after adventure, all amusing, all pointless. He falls in with a night watchman who gives him a place to stay; then he engages a profane Scottish teen-ager looking for his girlfriend, and when Johnny finally gets them together, the notion of romantic love is put to rest for all time. A strange, almost birdlike girl takes Johnny in and just as quickly kicks him out. A poster-hanger betrays him; a group of toughs pulps him.
The film is cleverly structured to bring Johnny and "Sebastian Hawkes" together under the same roof at the end, where varying degrees of nastiness will conflict for dominance, but in the end, a kind of placid decency wins out.
Leigh is an interesting director, as he showed in his breakout film "Life Is Sweet." He loves the authentic language of authentic people and encourages his performers to find their own words and rhythms; that gives even a stylized piece such as "Naked" a particular edge of reality that's extremely hard to come by in films today. You may feel like you need a drink and a shower when you come out of "Naked," but at least you'll know you've been somewhere new.
Starring David Thewlis and Greg Cruttwell
Directed by Mike Leigh
Released by Fine Line