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Naked is Mike Leigh’s nastiest movie—and maybe his best

Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: Instead of pegging our picks to a new release, we’re running through the best movies of 1993.

Naked (1993)

Like many of Mike Leigh’s films—all of which are devised through months of intensive improvisation with actors—Naked is inextricable from its high-wire central performance. David Thewlis plays Johnny, a young man first seen fleeing his native Manchester after committing what appears to be an act of sexual assault. Arriving in London, he looks up an ex-girlfriend (Lesley Sharp), promptly starts shagging her incredibly clingy roommate (the late Katrin Cartlidge), then gets fed up and heads out into the night, embarking on a stygian tour of the city’s underclass, with its infinite manifestations of sodden misery. And throughout it all, Johnny never stops ranting, about everything from the inutility of boredom (“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 colors”) to the impending end of the world. (“You can’t make an omelet without cracking a few eggs. And humanity is just a cracked egg. And the omelet stinks.”)

Thewlis’ logorrheic assault is nonstop dazzling—there’s never been a more incisive portrait of scabrous wit as defense mechanism, which is to say that no other actor has ever achieved such a sustained simultaneous peak of exhilaration and valley of depression. It’s like watching an Olympic diver perform a double somersault tuck into the Grand Canyon. At the same time, though, Leigh shrewdly contrasts Johnny with a much more odious character, alternately known as Jeremy and Sebastian (Greg Cruttwell), whose connection to the main story becomes apparent only near the end. This isn’t a plot twist so much as an exercise in perception: Jeremy/Sebastian (the dual identity is significant) represents what Johnny would look like stripped of such mollifying attributes as intelligence, humor, and poverty. Naked is far and away Leigh’s bleakest and most brutal film—a character study of a sociopath who wounds people emotionally rather than killing them, yet implicitly reserves his harshest attacks for himself. This is what happens, it says, when the human soul is stripped of its protective layer of civility and compassion.

Availability: Naked is available on Criterion Blu-ray and DVD and for rental through Netflix’s disc delivery service.