Rape is an action that is quite rightly seen in absolute, black-and-white terms. Inexcusable, unacceptable, short only of murder and in some instances even perceived as a far greater crime in part to its traumatic imprint upon the victims’ continuing consciousness. As a cinematic trope, its natural association with screen villains denies them considerable analytical interrogation. It’s only fitting, then, that this terrible crime is the action to begin Mike Leigh’s 1993 masterpiece, ‘Naked’, a film whose conceit is to orbit a veritable universe of characters who reject categorisation into the rigid dichotomy of good and evil; in the washed-out, bitter landscape of the Big Smoke, this very same dichotomy is far from neglected, instead presented as a complex internal struggle tending to manifest itself externally in less than articulate, sometimes violent circumstances through individuals beset by chronic confusion.
David Thewlis’ anti-hero, Johnny, perpertrator of the film’s opening horror, invites – through his intial sexual assualt in a Manchester back-alley and in subsequent harsh treatment of his fellow beings in the apparent ‘safe haven’ of London – a throwaway judgement that would threaten to pidgeonhole him alongside other detestable archetypes, if not for the following two hours we spend in his company; his odyssey through London in the midst of hysterical crackpots, a meandering security guard and a woman just as lonely, despondent and searching as he, enlightens to us without strict, clear-cut psychological exposition the inner complexity of an individual who beckons swift condemnation, yet holds appreciable treasure.
Juxtapose Johnny’s burgeoning three-dimensionality to that of Sebastian Hawk, the landlord of his ex-girlfriend, a steely, uncaring snob portrayed by Greg Cruttwell. Here we see a man oblivious to the notions of humility and compassion. His dominion over the women in his apartment and cruel treatment of human beings as playthings for his own pleasure without a shred of empathy, exemplifies within the film’s landscape the bitter atmosphere of post-Thatcher Britain and its damning effects on those at the mercy of a perpetual destitution.
Johnny is equally capable of bullying others, though his arrogant tendencies are beholden to the common human reluctance to concede any ground to those close to us. In a later scene, Johnny finds himself thrown out on the street by a young woman who is seen to mirror his own perennial struggle with co-existence. When occupying space with those close to him, his obligation is to assume a higher station and consequently belittle through quick, erudite intellectual castigations; and yet, when roaming the street and colliding with complete strangers, his capacity for compassion provides a flicker of hope in an envrionment otherwise drained of colour and optimism.
Contradictory despite his best efforts, Johnny adapts to the needs of each individual: engaging a disparate couple and helping to reunite them in one instant, convincing the aforementioned security guard of the nihilistic hopelessness of his life in the next. Whether his entertaining diatribes provoke thought or fail to amount to anything coherent as a single theory, they nevertheless give credence to the existence of that perfect storm inside of each one of us, not just in the our capacity for knowledge or understanding but in our discourses with our fellow human beings, who, as it transpires, we have no need to be truly afraid of.