For more than three decades, director Mike Leigh has been Britain's chief chronicler of working-class struggle, but he never created a character who could articulate his station in life quite like David Thewlis in 1993's Naked. With a mangy nest of brown hair set atop his bedraggled face, Thewlis looks a little like a rat that's emerged from the crawlspace. But he knows he's stuck in a maze, and his keen intelligence only serves to magnify his despair. He could be mistaken for any other raving derelict on a street corner, but his misanthropic rants are so convincing that's he's more like a prophet of doom, anxious to poison his listeners with news of the apocalypse. While others escape to the opiates of television or alcohol, Thewlis continues to pose the essential questions, and he's haunted by the fact that the answers never satisfy him. For example, he refers to the human body as "the most sophisticated mechanism in the entire universe," but his appreciation is tempered by cynicism: "It's like this wet, pink factory, but what the fuck are they making in there? What's the product?"
For Thewlis, the product is bile. His aggression manifests itself eloquently in speech, but lest the audience cozy up to him too easily, Leigh opens the film with a demonstration of how it gets worked out through brutality, too. Drawn by his scruffy charm, women are generally the unwitting victims of his free-floating anger, and the scene that plays out at the beginning, as he apparently rapes a woman in an alleyway, isn't much different from the consensual sex later in the film. After fleeing Manchester for London, Thewlis takes temporary refuge with his ex-girlfriend Lesley Sharp and her roommate Katrin Cartlidge, who takes an immediate liking to him, much to her peril. Thewlis' aimless wanderings through the dingy London nightscape lead to several encounters with its lonely inhabitants, including an unforgettable sequence in which he shares his philosophy with a security guard who watches over an empty space.
For the sake of balance, Leigh introduces a counterpoint to Thewlis in Greg Cruttwell, a callow playboy who's just as sadistic as Thewlis at his worst, but who leverages his considerable power, wealth, and privilege. Even if Cruttwell didn't seem more like a political construct than a real person, Naked wouldn't need him anyway, because Thewlis' undeniable magnetism still draws sympathy even when he reaches his lowest moments. He's the walking wounded, an embodiment of England's forgotten underbelly, and there's something improbably and touchingly noble about his struggle to survive. The DVD includes a terrific commentary track recorded before Cartlidge's 2002 death, plus Leigh's hilarious 1987 short "The Short And Curlies," which stars Thewlis as a man who speaks only in one-liners. In Naked, Thewlis is like that character gone to seed: Instead of one-liners, he speaks in monologues, and the Man Upstairs isn't listening.