Blackly funny and corrosively sad, Mike Leigh's NAKED is a rambling portrait of a young man flying apart at a breakneck pace. Like Leigh's earlier films, which include HIGH HOPES (1988) and LIFE IS SWEET (1991), NAKED is an artfully unpolished, ensemble portrait of a group of people who

are resolutely undistinguished, if not exactly ordinary.

The film opens on a violent sexual encounter in a Manchester alley. Rape? Consensual rough sex? A casual pickup gone awry? It's impossible to tell, but Johnny (David Thewlis)--who's ferociously clever, cruelly funny, and passably attractive--steals a car and flees to London, where he looks up his

old girlfriend, Louise (Lesley Sharp); seduces her drugged-out roommate, Sophie (Katrin Cartlidge); and wreaks havoc on the lives of everyone he meets. Meanwhile, sleek, disdainful, and apparently wealthy Jeremy (Greg Crutwell) rapes and terrorizes various women, including Sophie. Their paths

eventually cross, during a very dark night of the soul.

NAKED's greatest accomplishment is that one is forced to empathize with Johnny, however loathsome his behavior. His wit is unfailingly mean, his intelligence without direction or purpose. He feels cheated--by women, by England, by the world, by God--and retaliates by humiliating everyone within

range, by any means necessary. He's sexually vicious and practices conversation as a blood sport. His imagination is gridlocked with apocalyptic fantasies drawn from the Bible, the prophecies of Nostradamus, James Gleick's Chaos, and the tabloids.

Working from a script developed out of improvisations with the cast, Leigh has created one of the most abrasive--and articulate--characters in recent screen history. His work is triumphantly matched by that of Thewlis, with both director and actor taking awards at the 1993 Cannes festival, and

Thewlis picking up a raft of prizes in the US.