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Rotten Johnny

Naked arrives preceded by glowing reviews and perched on numerous critics' year-end best-of lists. And it's the latest product from the generally (but not uniformly) superb British filmmaker Mike Leigh. So, I was already in an advanced state of anticipation when the film began to roll. Recent movies have, with a couple of exceptions, left me hungry for substance, but the opening scene of Naked promised that much, and more.

This first moment -- a rape scene in a dim alleyway -- showed that the film is a departure for Leigh, who is best-known for his sad-to-savage working-class comedies. We first hear the woman's protests and her attacker's moans from a distance; then the camera jostles us as it hurries toward the crime, circles and looks in curiously on the act of violence. After Johnny (David Thewlis) finishes with the woman and runs away, trailed by her threats of vengeance, the film keeps its rhythm and gives us a sense of inexorable motion. Johnny drives through the rain to the London apartment of Louise (played by the soothingly plain Lesley Sharp), his ex-girlfriend from Manchester. While he waits for Louise to return, her roommate, Sophie (Katrin Cartlidge), arrives and invites the world-weary but charming man inside. Because of the attack we've already seen, and because Sophie doesn't seem smart enough to defend herself, Leigh effectively has us on edge. When will the angry and verbose Johnny get tired of talking to this woman, who is clearly his intellectual inferior, and violate her too?

We have to worry about all the women in this film. When Louise returns from work, it's a relief to find Johnny and Sophie still talking, but when Johnny turns his talk -- or, rather, his dogged and wearying anger -- on the passive Louise, we see that a type of rape is happening. I wanted to be angry at the way Louise acquiesces to Johnny's bullying. She only punctuates his insults and his contempt by asking if he'd care for some tea, or why he's come to London. I wanted to be angry at Leigh for presenting a scene of such withering misogyny, but the director and his actors, particularly Thewlis and Sharp, give the scene a reality that made my would-be complaints irrelevant. It's not just that Thewlis is charismatic; rather, it's the long-suffered and suffering air that both he and Sharp bring to their characters that makes their relationship feel real, and my complaints about etiquette seem beside the point.

The brutality continues when Louise goes to bed. Johnny doesn't have to rape the willing Sophie, whose silly black leather cap makes her seem a styleless dimwit; he compensates for her willingness by hurting her during sex. But Johnny has miscalculated a bit with her. The humiliation and pain sweep her away, and she falls hysterically in love with him. Her wailing as he wants to leave her, and Louise's passivity as she lies smoking in her bedroom listening to the commotion between her roommate and her ex-lover, are so precisely observed that they achieve a breakthrough into the realm of the real, as if Leigh had filmed an episode of Britain's nastiest and most revealing home videos.

When Johnny hits the late-night streets of London, the film loses some of its verisimilitude and begins to play more as allegory. It's a dark, gloomy night, filled with desperate and rude people. Johnny, no longer a violator, becomes a bemused spectator of the human comedy, circa the latter days of humanity. Johnny is convinced that mankind is living its final days. Like David Koresh, he has decoded the Book of Revelations, and seems perfectly sincere as he warns of the world's imminent demise. But if Johnny is a prophet, he's a very contemporary one. Like Koresh, he carries both the Lord's word -- His warning of destruction -- and the vengeful act itself. Very much the latter-day prophet, Johnny doesn't warn us to repent and mend our ways, or else. No, it's too late; the machinery of "or else" is already in gear. The disaster has already begun, and Johnny himself is living proof.

We learn all this in Johnny's conversations with other creatures of the night. He's the only fully conscious man out there on the street. A dazed young Scot couple can't figure what he's saying, or why. Because Johnny is so amused by his intellectual superiority, and because the thick-headedness of others is rendered in such quirky detail, the film becomes a species of black comedy here, dark even for the gloomy Leigh. The next scene, in which Johnny is let into a locked building by a sympathetic night watchman -- the night "is as cold as an Eskimo's grave," Johnny says -- has its own interest, but by this point the film is losing some of its intensity.

The philosophical wrangling between Johnny and the watchman, himself a biblical scholar, is fine, but as they make their rounds through the building -- a "postmodernist" nightmare for Johnny's way of thinking -- the film loses its sense of boundary-breaking realism and becomes an already familiar commentary on the soullessness of the modern age. It slips further after Johnny leaves the building. The watchman spies on the woman in the next building every night, but has never worked up the nerve to go over and meet her. Johnny, of course, has no trouble doing so, but this peeping-Tom business is the film's most unfortunate cliche, and Johnny's going to meet the woman is far less interesting than, say, David Letterman's calling the friendly office worker next door during his NBC days.

It's a stretch that the woman lets the stranger in, and her passivity and acquiescence in the face of his insults lacks the tension of credibility. The film has slipped out of Leigh's control by this point. He's famous for his method with actors, and for using them to help generate his story as he goes along. This works well enough when nothing much is supposed to happen, when we're simply getting an eyeful of working-class life, but in Naked he's attempting something more complicated. The stories he has put into motion need to intersect and build just so, or they die. And purely in terms of story, die is what the movie nearly does. I gave it up for lost when Leigh introduced a couple of thoroughly unbelievable and eventually pointless characters: a fatuously woman-hating realtor and a fatuously inarticulate roommate to Louise, whom Johnny eventually staggers back to.

But when Naked reassembles its original trio -- the brutal, brilliant and unpredictable Johnny, the pleasant, slightly bovine Louise and the pathetic Sophie -- the film gets off its deathbed and back on its feet. Cartlidge becomes finally very funny as the love-struck love slave Sophie, though we are definitely laughing at her, not with her. Louise's well-hidden charm is finally revealed -- it consists largely of patience -- and Johnny gets a final chance to bare his ferocious soul.

Johnny plays as a philosophical cousin to the Depardieu character of Going Places, or even Brando's admittedly more romantic lost soul in Last Tango in Paris, but he doesn't have the same dense movie surrounding him that those other characters enjoy.

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