Now here's a man who could play Ichabod Crane, David Thewlis, and he nearly is here in Mike Leigh's 1993 film Naked. Perhaps it would be more appropriate to compare him to Falstaff, the model Washington Irving drew on for many protagonists in his works. Like Falstaff (and Ichabod Crane), Thewlis' character Johnny embodies an affectionate and unvarnished portrait of humanity. This is a brilliant black comedy that exposes the cruelty and failure of capitalism and other social conventions through a series of contrasting characters and circumstances.
The film opens with Johnny having a violent sexual encounter with a woman in a Manchester alley. The Wikipedia synopsis refers to the encounter as rape, but in this interview Thewlis describes it instead as "sex that gets out of hand". The impression I had watching was that it was consensual sex but Johnny ejaculated inside the woman without letting her know beforehand, possibly on accident. He grabs her hair a little roughly, too--there's certainly a hostility in how Johnny conducts himself during intercourse though he never forces a woman against her will. Jeremy (Greg Cruttwell), on the other hand, only seems to achieve sexual pleasure from raping women.
The two men are one of the first sets of contrasts the film employs. Jeremy is introduced in this scene angrily exercising long before the plot brings him into Johnny's world. But the pertinence of his appearance alongside scenes of Johnny is to establish two different conceptions of entitlement being played out--Johnny represents what a conservative might mean by entitlement, Jeremy represents what liberals might mean by entitlement.
As Johnny later says, he flees Manchester to avoid a beating--from the woman's husband presumably. He comes to London to the home of his ex-girlfriend Louise (Lesley Sharp). He has no money, he lives on the dole, as does Louise's roommate Sophie (Katrin Cartlidge).
Sophie's the first person to come home and find Johnny waiting on the doorstep. In his particularly good review of this movie, Roger Ebert describes the relationship that develops between the two aptly;
The "relationship" that develops between these two people is so pathetic that it can barely be watched. The "sex" they have is such a desperate attempt to feel something in the midst of their separate wastelands that it is much like watching them wound themselves.
Throughout the film, Johnny expounds on his complex philosophy and conspiracy theories about the future and the meaning of life. He talks to Sophie about how ridiculous it is to explore outer space, wondering if people really think they're going to find God or meaning in the heavens. And Sophie responds, "Because let's face it, right, what are rockets? I mean, they're just big metal pricks." The two wax clever for each other, neither quite seems to understand the other, but both seem to admire the other's ironic distance from life.
She sits on his chest and he tries vainly to unlace her corset which she calls an "intelligence test" before finally saying, "You tried the stairs, now take the escalator," and twisting the garment around to where there's a handy zipper.
After they've had sex, Johnny's reading a medical book and tells her about the complexity of the human body, telling her he could've been a doctor. "Do you want to examine me?" she asks and he says, "You don't believe me do you?" Johnny is a little more serious in the intelligence test he gives, part of a pattern he displays throughout the film in deploying devices to avoid emotional intimacy.
When Sophie proves too clingy for him, he leaves both her and Louise in the flat. But he lives on a presumption that men and women are brothers and sisters and everyone is entitled to be treated as such. He greets a mentally impaired Scotsman on the street like an old friend, he happily accepts the temporary hospitality of a security guard whose job is to guard a completely empty building throughout the night. He constantly takes the piss with the people he meets, both out of his habitual fear of intimacy but also out of his presumption of comradeship. He is entitled to take the piss out of everyone because everyone's his brother or sister.
Jeremy, on the other hand, sees everyone else as members of a lesser species, there for him to exploit for his sadistic pleasure. Despite this, he's clearly possessed by a constant anger, a dissatisfaction with the world being as he sees it. In one very evocative scene, he stands almost naked over a cowering Louise, Sophie, and Johnny and observes with undisguised disgust, "Aren't people pathetic?" as though he's not one of them.
Jeremy is the consummate benefactor of capitalism. A system dependent on the suffering of those whose combinations of talents, skills, and mental aptitude prevent them from taking slices of the pie reserved for the likes of Jeremy. Johnny, who's recently been beaten bloody on the street for no reason by four men, tearfully implores Jeremy to see him as a brother. Jeremy's like Patrick Bateman, a British psycho instead of an American one, and not so very different for that. But it's perhaps his fundamental humanity that makes him angry and dissatisfied with the sadism capitalism has nurtured in him.
There's a glimmer of hope as Louise and Johnny talk about going back to Manchester together, but this seems a cruel reflection of the capitalism that made Jeremy as this leaves no room for Sophie who's heartbroken. The movie doesn't end even as happy as that situation. Maybe a lot could have been avoided if Johnny had listened to Morrissey, another Manchester native, when he sang, "If you think peace is a common goal that goes to show how little you know."