Thursday, July 14, 2011

Criterion Collection: Naked ***(1993) Blu-ray

Naked made quite a splash at Cannes in 1993, gaining Best Director and Best Actor recognition for Mike Leigh and David Thewlis respectively. In a way, the success at Cannes represented not only enthusiasm for Naked, but a belated acceptance of the British director and his quirky tales of a working class fully engulfed by quiet desperation. When Leigh returned to Cannes three years later with the smoother, more polished Secret and Lies, all remaining critical resistance buckled like wet cardboard. This time he walked away with the Palme d’Or and, a few months later, five Oscar nominations to boot.

If Secrets and Lies stands as Leigh’s mainstream breakthrough, then certainly Naked is his touchstone for the cinema cognoscenti. Prior to Naked, Leigh’s career consisted mainly of TV work – much of it critically well met but TV work nonetheless – and two grittily brilliant British life-slicers: High Hopes (1988) and Life is Sweet (1990). Both films dealt with working class families who, despite limited prospects and full immersion in the bleak air of Thatcherism, maintained a sunny optimism and an almost heroic sense of responsibility. The films also shared meticulously observed details that produced moments of startling resonance, all while retaining enough humorous drive to keep them firmly staked to the comedy genre. 

No such genre encumbrance afflicts Naked. While the film has a number of hilarious moments, it can only be considered a comedy in the broadest sense. The film is like a dark plunge into icy forbidden waters; the resultant shock heightening the senses just enough to make one fully aware of the disorienting perils that lie ahead. The London Town depicted here is not a charming cloister of regal palaces and fine tailor shops, but a forlorn purgatory of rancid smells, tawdry temptations and perpetual insolence; a besotted city whose morals are crumbling as fast as its bricks.

Into this empire of excreta steps Johnny (David Thewlis), a scruffy, penniless hedonist from Manchester, whose exceptionally high I.Q. is matched only by his exceedingly low ambition. Johnny has fled Manchester in a stolen car in order to escape a good, sound thrashing and hopes to reconnect with his former girlfriend Louise (Lesley Sharp) in the process. These early scenes give little indication of Johnny’s slashing wit and oracle-like perceptions; indeed, Leigh deceives his audience by implying Naked will be the tale of a slovenly small time hood beneath London’s gray winter skies. But like slowly peeling an onion, through word and through deed, Johnny is eventually revealed to be much more sympathetic, yet paradoxically much more dangerous, than we could ever have imagined.

While awaiting Louise’s return from work, Johnny elects to pass the time by sampling the sexual wares of roommate Sophie (Katrin Cartlidge), a spacey quasi-Goth who always seems a beat behind the reality unfolding around her. Sophie is a mellower, less angry version of Jane Horrocks’ character from Life is Sweet, but the two lost souls share a confusion of love with sexual subjugation. Sex as sport is a recurrent theme in Naked, as Leigh presents a British society that seems to have given up entirely on romantic notions. When Louise returns, the walls of the modest flat begin to close in on Johnny, whose place in the universe is now reduced to a small spot on the sofa; a musty perch from where he issues biting wit while the women scurry about like worker bees.

Unable to deal with the increasing claustrophobia, Johnny steps out into the freezing mists of a dark London night, and in the ensuing 48 hours he will encounter a cross section of blindly adrift humanity. Despite the film’s frequent jabs at Catholicism, Johnny’s adventure in the degenerate underbelly of the British capital takes on Biblical characteristics; a theory supported by visual clues from Leigh’s cameraman and long time collaborator Dick Pope. After an amusing – some could say Pentecostal - encounter with an angry, barely comprehensible Scotsman (Ewan Bremner), Johnny is left deserted in an alley, his tattered overcoat creating a shroud-like silhouette illuminated by a back lit halo. In a motor-mouthed conversation with a security guard (Peter Wight), Johnny colorfully explains his interpretation of the book of Revelations while gesturing toward an installation of tropical plants, a not too subtle allusion to Gethsemane. In a Woman at the Well moment, Johnny faces the temptations of a desperate exhibitionist (Deborah MacLaren), and he eventually seeks sanctuary from a mysterious and skeptical waitress (Gina McKee).

Furthering Naked’s ecumenical ethos, Leigh constructs a concurrent storyline involving the Anti-Johnny, a smug upper class twit named Jeremy (Greg Cuttwell), who embodies an intensely selfish evil that puts Johnny’s transgressions into a more favorable perspective. Jeremy darts about London in a flashy black Porsche, ever in search of new flesh to conquer. His insatiable appetites ultimately lead him to add home invasion and rape to his sordid list of perversions, and his insufferable grin will make viewers realize that Satan truly walks the Earth. Meanwhile, an incident renders Johnny beaten and battered, while a nurse with amusingly confused thoughts (Claire Skinner) tends his wounds and washes his bloodstained feet. And the audience can only wonder if Leigh will roll away the stone and attempt a resurrection .

Disc Review
The film is presented in its full 1.85:1 aspect and the transfer, executed under Leigh’s guidance, is rich, clean and sharp. In other words, exactly what we’ve come to expect from Criterion. Considering the extensive restoration some of the recent Criterion blu-ray releases have required, this fairly young negative must have been a welcome break for the production staff.

The audio track, offered in Dolby 2.0 surround, is effective if occasionally marred by overmixing of Andrew Dickson’s suspenseful score. Since Thewlis delivers his pivotal, rapid-fire monologues in a thick Manchester patois, use of subtitles is highly recommended. You won’t want to miss a syllable of the film’s clever wordplay.

Audio Commentary
The commentary track is lifted from the DVD release of 2005, and features the insights of Leigh, Thewlis and the late Katrin Cartlidge, who tragically died of a lung infection in 2002. We get some interesting tidbits about Leigh’s techniques and philosophies, and the surprising revelation that he’s always apprehensive about shooting the opening scenes of his films. Thewlis describes his intense preparation, including being commanded by Leigh to walk around for an hour in order to appear properly cold and weary for his night exterior scenes. Although Johnny and Louise’s former relationship is never shown on screen, Leigh had Thewlis and Sharp spend several months going out to dinner and bars together and behaving as a struggling couple to give their interactions in the film an authentic ring of shared backstory. The director offers his thoughts on the entire cast and crew, and is especially complimentary of Cuttwell, who was so convincingly despicable in this role he found other parts difficult to get, and eventually had to retire from acting. At times, Leigh comes across as exceptionally pleased with himself, but given his impressive filmography who can blame him?

Video interview with director Neil LaBute
LaBute, who has made a sort of cottage industry out of commenting on other directors' work, offers his analysis of Naked’s complex thematics. To LaBute, Naked is a film all about human connections, or perhaps humans failing to connect or something. At 12 minutes, it’s a sizable investment with little reward. Skip it.

Episode of the BBC program The Art Zone in which author Will Self interviews Leigh
This 40 minute program – after scenes of the host making coffee – eventually settles into an interview with Leigh, who seems as baffled by Self’s rambling questions as we are. The interviewer is clearly a big fan of Leigh; perhaps too much so as he often seems on the verge of fawning. Leigh keeps his good humor through it all, and manages to deliver a few juicy nuggets; the most notable is the admission that he developed his collaborative style largely due to the extreme loneliness he felt when trying to write. This inclusion will appeal mainly to diehard Leigh enthusiasts.

The Short and Curlies, a short comedy from 1987 directed by Leigh and starring Thewlis, with audio commentary by Leigh
This hilarious obscurity is the real star of the supplements and frankly, it’s worth the price of the disc to include this gem in your collection. The Short and Curlies chronicles the burgeoning romance between a talkative dork (Thewlis) and a dour, hypochondriac druggist’s assistant ironically named Joy (Sylvestra Le Touzel). The former Mrs. Leigh, Alison Steadman, lends brilliant support as a jittery hairstylist who regards Joy’s tresses as a sort of laboratory, and experiments accordingly. A number of amusing scenes follow, including Thewlis’ hysterical attempt to purchase condoms with his would-be girlfriend on duty at the cash register. In all, the piece combines the best elements of cinema verite with cinema of the absurd, in a highly enjoyable 17 minute package. Commentary from Leigh is provided as well, with an emphasis on the similarities between Thewlis’ character here and Johnny from Naked. Both characters, according to Leigh, suffer from “verbal diarrhea.”

Original theatrical trailer
The trailer clearly attempted to sell Naked as a rather straightforward comedy, with only a few hints of its darker edges. Overall, the teaser is a brisk, lively and entertaining construction.

A booklet featuring essays by film critics Derek Malcolm and Amy Taubin
A high quality 16 page compendium of stills, credits and production notes from the disc. Two essays are included. The first, Desperate Days by Derek Malcolm of The Evening Standard, deals mainly with Naked’s place within the sphere of Leigh’s filmography. It’s followed by The Monster We Know by Film Comment’s Amy Taubin; a thorough analysis of Johnny’s character as expressed by his sexual attitudes. Both pieces are perceptive and well written, and fans of the film will want to devour every word.

Mike Leigh’s famously unconventional technique – defining characters through long periods of improvisational rehearsal– is highly effective at creating stunning social realism and characters of rich, almost three dimensional eccentricity. It’s also a technique that works best for intimate-scale films with restricted narrative palettes, and there lies Naked’s downfall. Its scale is too big, its ambitions too broad, to fit comfortably within the sweet spot of Mike Leigh’s directorial wheelhouse. Still, the film earns a recommendation for the masterful and amazing performance of David Thewlis. His turn as a Jesus/Ulysses hybrid demanded chops of enormous range, and there isn’t a single frame here where Thewlis doesn’t deliver. Naked would be considered a signature achievement by almost any other director, but for a Mike Leigh film it comes up empty and, most uncharacteristic of all, a bit contrived.

Reviewed by David Anderson

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