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‘Naked’ (NR)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
January 28, 1994

Not everyone will enjoy "Naked," an uncompromising film about the war between the sexes and the bleakness of existence, with a socially dysfunctional, wandering prophet (David Thewlis) at the dark center of it all.

The ones who don't like the movie, I expect, will object to its rough treatment of women. In Mike Leigh's British-made movie (which won at Cannes for Leigh's direction and Thewlis's performance), female characters are often sexually brutalized. It is unpleasant to witness what some of them (particularly Katrin Cartlidge) go through. That they participate -- even somewhat -- in their suffering is likely to fan the flames of outrage even higher.

But a more attentive, less-conventional reaction will, I think, appreciate greater complexities. This is not a movie against women. It's about how men treat women -- among many other things. The male-female element is just one strand of Leigh's existential fabric. "Naked" is about how everyone's up against everything, especially in England, a country full of social, economic and personal problems.

And lest this be forgotten in the controversial mix: The movie is also funny, endearing, wry, insightful and poignant. Isn't that entertainment?

Most of the appealing stuff -- and a good share of the challenging material -- comes from Thewlis. As Johnny, he's a salty, hyper-intelligent, hyper-paranoid drifter from the unemployed, industrial north, who has come to London -- apparently -- to look up a former girlfriend, Louise (Lesley Sharp).

Louise is at work when Johnny arrives, so he hangs out with her housemate Sophie (Cartlidge). As we discover immediately, he's a man of stunning, rapid-fire wit. Sophie, a sensitive and rather zoned-out punk, is much taken with him. A swift physical attraction occurs. By the time Louise arrives, the two are like old friends.

But when a woman succumbs to his charms (as many do), Johnny's endearments turn violent and angry. The grown-up result of a nasty home life, he's unaware of the need for physical tenderness. Leaving Sophie confused and heartbroken -- and frustrated himself -- he wanders through London, trying to connect with a succession of strangers.

In what amounts to an allegorical journey through modern times, Johnny has episodic run-ins with a bizarre, thick-accented Scot, searching the streets for his girlfriend; a lonely, philosophical security guard who spies nightly on a woman across the street; a shy waitress who invites Johnny home, then has an unexpected change of heart; and a bill poster who, after listening to Johnny rant, leaves him in a beaten heap on the street.

These and other unexpected twists and turns are charged with Johnny's manic, despairing outpourings. His mind spills over with humankind's accumulated knowledge -- from the Koran to the latest TV ads -- as he makes ominous pronouncements about anything that comes to mind.

He gives an inspired treatise on the biblical forewarnings of Chernobyl and the satanic implications of the universal bar code (its numerical symbols, he claims, correspond to 666). Completely immersed in philosophy, theology, commercials and everything else, he's unable to function on normal, superficial levels. But he's an existential cut-up about it. When Louise innocently inquires, "How did you get here?" he replies all too eloquently.

"Well, basically," he says, his words getting faster and faster, "there was this little dot, right? And the dot went bang and the bang expanded. Energy formed into matter, matter cooled, matter lived, the amoeba to fish, to fish to fowl, to fowl to frog, to frog to mammal, the mammal to monkey, to monkey to man, amo amas amat, quid pro quo, memento mori, ad infinitum, sprinkle on a little bit of grated cheese and leave under the grill till Doomsday."

You don't forget Johnny and, in the movie's most alarming portions, you won't forget Jeremy (Gregg Crutwell) either. An incredibly nasty character (and Sophie's and Louise's landlord), he intimidates women into dates, treating them with complete disdain and physical cruelty. Poor Sophie finds herself, once again, the brunt of rapacious male impulses.

But this is all part of the movie's wildly uncharted territory. Don't expect the watery grog of most movies. This is 90-proof, single-malt stuff. You sip it neat and you don't handle heavy machinery afterward. This movie will stay with you long after you've seen it, thanks to Thewlis's performance, Leigh's direction, Andrew Dickson's haunting bass-and-harp soundtrack, cinematographer Dick Pope's indelible images -- and the unalloyed, naked conviction of it all.

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