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MAD ABOUT THE BOY

Johnny, the sardonic young drifter at the center of Mike Leigh's startling new film Naked, is a kind of serial killer, but he carries no gun, rope or knife. A street-tough British bloke from Manchester, he can be physically brutal with women, but he specializes in maiming his victims emotionally--by manipulating their affections with his charm or pounding them with wicked verbal assaults. He saves his choicest venom for God (and, sometimes, for himself), and we suspect there's no way out of his dark limbo.

Since the collapse of the Empire, British writers and moviemakers have provided a long line of seething rebels like Johnny. Jimmy Porter, the university-educated, working-class misfit of John Osborne's landmark drama Look Back in Anger, became the prototype back in 1957, and Johnny (played brilliantly by a lean, hungry actor named David Thewlis) has a lot in common with him. He, too, has a vendetta against society and the class system, and love is as alien to him as worldly success. But as Leigh's blunt title suggests, anger gets even closer to the bone these days, and it wears fewer literary niceties.

When we first see Johnny, a sinewy tempter with wild hair and a disarming red mustache, he's having sex in a dark alley with a woman he's just picked up. He ends the perfunctory episode with a sneer and a shove, then steals a car and sets off to invade the ratty London flat shared by his old girlfriend from Manchester, Louise (Lesley Sharp), as well as the stoned, disconnected Sophie (Katrin Cartlidge) and a straitlaced nurse (Claire Skinner). Before we know it, Johnny has taken up with Sophie, while the frightened and wary Louise stews in her juices.

For his demonic glare and bitter indifference, Johnny is one of the most odious characters of recent memory. But his assaults on everything and everyone around him are spiked with wit, and the gifted Thewlis gives us quick access to a brute who can crack so wise that he frequently charms us, too. Whether he's mocking a row of elephant knick-knacks on a shelf, raving about the follies of his creator or scorning the fashionable prophecies of Nostradamus, this genius-in-the-rough has a dazzling gift for exposing the sham of life even while trying to find his place in it. Fabulist, thinker and destroyer, Johnny defies categories.

So does filmmaker Leigh. His earlier features--notably High Hopes and last year's art house hit, Life is Sweet--revealed an uncanny instinct for the quirks of British trauma, and for inimitable characters. The teenage Maoist secretly binging on chocolate in Life is Sweet and her beleaguered father, whose dreams were even smaller than he was, come to mind. Leigh is surely one of the keenest observers in moviedom.

In Naked, too, we encounter some people who might come off as surreal freaks or caricatures were they not so achingly real just below their bizarre surfaces. Among those drawn into Johnny's orbit is a dour, lonely night watchman (Peter Wight) who invites him in from the cold for a little talk and must put up with a harangue instead. There's a bickering Scottish couple (Ewen Bremner and Susan Vidler) who savage each other in a mysterious dialect even they may not understand. And there's the oily sadist Jeremy (played by Greg Cruttwell) who's sometimes called Sebastian and who gets inadvertently entwined in Johnny's bleak and hilarious web.

All the acting is first-rate if a bit strange. But in the end the movie belongs to Thewlis's despicable, oddly appealing guttersnipe, an anti-hero who's willfully cut himself off from the world and demands that others do likewise. The darkest, most disturbing film yet from Leigh (it won him the best director award at the most recent Cannes Film Festival), it's buoyed by equal parts of farce and fury.

England's angry young men haven't vanished, it seems: They've just taken on new and even more vivid colorations of rage.

 
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