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The blog below was under an older name of Hollyweird. I have kept the numbering the same so that I could keep track of my posts, but this is where it all begin back in the heyday of 2012…
In a world such as ours, it seems a shame that David Thewlis will perhaps be best remembered as a werewolf in the Harry Potter films. Now don’t go getting me wrong, even though I’m not a fan of HP (the sauce or the wizard) I can recognise that some of the later films were good. But if it was my world, Mr Thewlis would be far better known for a part he had that first put him on the map. It was a performance that was very well-regarded in 1993- in fact it won Cannes best performer award that year. But during ‘best performance’ articles or discussions Thewlis’ amazing turn seems strangely neglected ever since. Perhaps that is due to the role’s bleak dissection of humanity at its most self-destructive. Perhaps the ugliness on display is just too…. naked.
In 1993 Mike Leigh began to experiment more fully with improvisational film techniques. These techniques have since become refined to a point of association with Leigh. The concept is to only have a very rough outline for a script and to actually base the characters, dialogue and relationships based on extended rehearsal time. The results present very naturalistic films, usually reflecting the struggles/joys of Working Class character’s lives, such as in Secrets & Lies, All or Nothing or Happy Go Lucky
However the start of this period, Naked, is still my personal favourite of Leigh’s films and that is entirely down to Thewlis’ portrayal of ‘Johnny’.
Johnny flees Manchester after an vaguely-consensual affair with a married woman turns to attempted rape, and he fears he will be beaten by her husband. This all happens within the first few seconds of the film, so it is clear from the offset that we although may journey with Johnny, we may never like him or condone his actions.
So why then does the film instantly stick us with this rapist and coward? It is actually quite simple; Because Johnny is in fact one of the most fascinating enigma’s that British film has ever produced.
I don’t actually intend to discuss the plot of the rest of Naked. There is a whole lot that could be analysed about class, Patriarchal society and Cynicism vs Kynicism. (Feel free to Wiki them- how do you think I learned such fancy terminology??). For this piece, the only part relevant here is to look back at Thewlis’ defining performance as Johnny.
So very briefly, just to keep you up to speed (you, yes, you. The one with the eyes). Escaping Manchester, Johnny reaches London. He aims to stay with an ex-girlfriend, Louise. After coldly sleeping with Louise’s house mate and then generally insulting everyone, Johnny is soon turfed out to wander the streets. It is in these moments that we begin to see the self-loathing grandeur of Johnny. As he encounters different parts of the Capital’s underbelly, Johnny expresses all manner of explosive world views. These range depending on whom he is talking to and what he is trying to express.
A good example is on debating the nature of humanity with a Security guard. At first there is some simple banter.
Johnny: And what is it what goes on in this post-modern gas chamber?
Brian: Nothing. It’s empty.
Johnny: So what is it you guard, then?
Johnny: You’re guarding space? That’s stupid, isn’t it? Because someone could break in there and steal all the fuckin’ space and you wouldn’t know it’s gone, would you?
This is the playful Johnny. A little cheeky, a little insulting but interacting. But soon the next level comes to the surface,
Johnny: Look, if you take the whole of time and represent it by one year, were only in the first few moments of the first of January. There’s a long way to go. Only now were not going to spout extra limbs and wings and fins because evolution itself is evolving. When it comes, the apocalypse itself will be part of the process of that leap of evolution.
Brian: Yeah, well. Whatever happens mankind will not cease to exist
Johnny: We must! By the very definition of apocalypse, mankind must cease to exist, at least in a material form.
Brian: What do you mean, in a material form? Johnny: We will evolve.
Brian: What into? Johnny: We’ll evolve into something that transcends matter, into a species of pure thought. Are you with me?
Brian: Yeah… like a ghost
Johnny: Not like a fucking ghost you big girl’s blouse! Into something that’s well beyond our comprehension. Into a universal consciousness. Into God. Who is by the same principle that time is.
Brian: You don’t believe in God
Johnny: Of course I believe in God
Now Johnny is trying to dominate. He is not having a discussion so much as showing his superiority by demolishing Brian’s responses. Within this scene, Johnny is displaying a mix of philosophy, science and religion but all are being tamed by his own concepts. His ego is showing, but then so too are his contradictions.
Does Johnny believe in God? And how can if he if he believes that all humanity will one day become God? How can he say humanity will not exist whilst claiming it will go on?
The fact is that this scene shows parts of Johnny’s thinking, but it is via a fun debate. Much darker aspects of his mind come out at other times. Accused of being bored, Johnny snaps back
Johnny: Was I bored? No, I wasn’t fuckin’ bored. I’m never bored. That’s the trouble with everybody – you’re all so bored. You’ve had nature explained to you and you’re bored with it, you’ve had the living body explained to you and you’re bored with it, you’ve had the universe explained to you and you’re bored with it, so now you want cheap thrills and, like, plenty of them, and it doesn’t matter how tawdry or vacuous they are as long as it’s new as long as it’s new as long as it flashes and fuckin’ bleeps in forty fuckin’ different colours. So whatever else you can say about me, I’m not fuckin’ bored.
Now Johnny is nihilistic. He considers everyone beneath him and has no time for humanity or technology. Not even for questions, despite he himself seeking to question the role of life, the universe and everything. So is he a liar? Or a hypercrite? Or far more likely a multi-faceted character as contradictory as any real person?
The key to making such a mixed up character (and criminal) so watchable is how Thewlis portrays him. Well,somewhere between a Buddha, a psychopath and a bloke on the pull. Thewlis himself has said the he spent month just drinking coffee and smoking and reading- virtually no sleep or food. He wanted to be wired and literate at all times. Here is a moment to show the pay off for that enforced mindset:
If all these examples seem relatively tame for a possibly insane/possibly sick character then seeing the film is a whole different thing. Watch Naked and you’ll how brutally he has sex or how he flippantly he reduces the lives of people around him with a simple put down and stare. But it is not just down to Thewlis. Leigh’s direction is really on point in presenting its protagonist in Naked.
One of my favourite moments of the film is an incredibly simple one. Johnny says nothing and barely reacts, but the scene shows how he is at the centre of everything, acting like a black hole of tension. Sadly I cannot find any online footage of this moment, so I’ll briefly explain it.
Johnny has been on the streets for an evening, alternating his time with both parties of an arguing couple, played by the always reliable Ewan Bremner and Susan Vidler. In a single shot, Johnny walks on ever forward down an alleyway. The couple screech at one another and move around him. The camera keeps panning with them, and soon circles all of them. This is a brief moment in the film. Yet in just this movement, the utter loneliness and chaos that Johnny breeds is displayed in a single hypnotic movement.
Overall, as someone else succinctly put it during my internet research, Johnny is “Intelligent, educated and eloquent….also deeply embittered and egotistical, fighting and provoking anyone he meets in order to prove his superiority. His behaviour is reckless, self-destructive and at times even sadistic… Like a vile Candide”. To my mind, British cinema could do with a few more characters like this, and a few less ‘whoopsy daisy’ romantic leads. But then again, I suspect Thwelis could pull off those parts too.
[NB: A final note I want to put is in case any readers are now curious enough to watch Naked. A major concern that I myself have with this film is its depiction of women. Within it, women flock to both Johnny and another sociopathic character, Jeremy. This is despite their abusive behaviour to females, and sometimes even after it!
Whether this is a form of misogynistic masturbation (something the otherwise excellent Buffalo 66 veers into) or not, I find Naked afascinating watch due to Thewlis’ work. The rest of the film I don’t really care for. So don’t blame me if you hate it!]
Next time I’ll be looking for something a bit less intense, like child slavery. Nah, I’ll actually be writing about an overlooked horror film where Gary Busey actually gets to play a good guy!
Thanks for reading,