If you haven’t seen Naked, we’d suggest catching up with it over watching Guest of Honour, but either will leave you hungry for more of David Thewlis’s acting. Read our ebook on Mike Leigh’s work, Peterloo in process: A Mike Leigh collaboration.
The most exciting thing about Atom Egoyan’s latest work of genre experimentation, Guest of Honour, is that it features a central leading performance from the great and often under-used David Thewlis. Depending on how much you like Thewlis, and are interested in Egoyan’s not quite successful late work, your mileage may vary. Like Captive, it’s a solid, compelling genre piece with some great performances. But like so much of recent Egoyan, it’s a lot of build-up to a whimper.
That’s frustrating, but for the most part, I didn’t care because it’s a showcase role for Thewlis. In the film, he plays a restaurant inspector who wields his power for personal vendettas. He’s a kind of unremarkable but insidious pedant, the sort of real-life villain who is unassuming but ends businesses for the fun of it, and yet whose presence you’d forget as soon as he leaves a room. That said, Thewlis is not forgettable, finding curiosities in this thoroughly unlikeable but seemingly unassuming man, and allowing you to empathise with his plight even as you regard him with disgust. Lonely and alienated from his daughter, he milks what little power he has at every opportunity in an effort to get some control over his life.
David Thewlis’s breakout role was in Mike Leigh’s Naked, in which he gave the kind of tour de force performance most actors only dream of. It was the perfect match of material and actor, and it’s still an absolutely thrilling performance to watch, one of those best-of-the-century turns that doesn’t get talked about enough. Thewlis picked up the Cannes Best Actor award, and enough critical plaudits that you’d expect it to have launched a major career. Though he’s been consistently working ever since, he’s had few showcase roles, one of which is Guest of Honour.
In Naked, Thewlis stars as Johnny, a self-destructive nihilist in his late twenties, who wields his misogyny as a means of dealing with his own pain. Fiercely intelligent and well read, Johnny is prone to long philosophical pontifications, and regularly cracks jokes nobody around him understands. Aware of this, he repeatedly asks almost everyone, “Are you with me?” Part of the pleasure of watching Thewlis as Johnny is in watching him think.
Given Mike Leigh’s rehearsal process, the fact that Thewlis crafted this character from scratch, read what Johnny read, and came up with these many speeches is already impressive, a window into the mind of a very bright actor whose intelligence isn’t wielded nearly often enough. That he can spew this intellectual nonsense in a way that doesn’t just make you roll your eyes is all the more impressive. But that’s not even the biggest feat of Thewlis’s performance.
Few actors could take someone like Johnny and make him as charismatic and likable as he is absolutely deplorable. We meet Johnny in the middle of a rape scene, and yet, by the end of the film, we will have felt Johnny’s pain, understood his motivations, and hoped he’d pull himself out of his depression, even as we revile him. That is, in part, because Leigh and Thewlis make sure that we are ‘with’ Johnny even as his peers aren’t. It’s hard not to laugh at Thewlis’s delivery of “Thanks for the mammaries,” before fondling his partner’s breasts; even if she misses the double entendre, Thewlis and Leigh make sure we don’t, though it’s so quick you also feel almost smug to be keeping up with Johnny.
But I think the reason I keep coming back to Naked is Johnny’s relationship with his ex-girlfriend, Louise (Lesley Sharpe), the impetus for his trip to London. There’s so much history between them that Thewlis and Sharp reveal with almost no exposition. It’s in the speed with which they fire comebacks at each other, and the fact that Johnny never asks her if she’s “with him”. In the early scenes of the film, Johnny is seduced by or seduces Louise’s roommate, Sophie (Katrin Cartlidge), yet Thewlis never loses his focus on Louise, only ever half looking at Sophie, always bringing the conversation back to Louise. Once Louise returns home, Johnny continues to make everything about her by deliberately not looking at her, by paying attention to Sophie for the first time to rile up Louise. It’s a toxic dance between two people who know each other well, so realistic and yet so rarely portrayed on screen.
My favourite scene in the film takes place on the bathroom floor of Louise’s apartment near the end of the film. After going on a nighttime odyssey through London and ending up back where he started with a black eye, Johnny and Louise finally get to spend some time alone. When Sophie asks Johnny if he wants to be left alone with Louise, he straight-faced asks if she’s being sarcastic, because, of course, it’s all he’s wanted all along. Alone in this liminal space, they engage, banter, and talk. Johnny flirtatiously touches the back of Louise’s shorts with his toe, even as he has trouble meeting her eye, often looking away when their eyes meet for too long. They end by cuddling, the kind of intimacy Johnny has avoided at every step. Here, Thewlis reveals a gentler side of Johnny that he only lets Louise see — making silly, childish jokes, and slowing down enough to just sit with her. It’s the only time we see Johnny really relax, breathing deeply as he slouches back against the wall. That it can’t last ends up heartbreaking, that Johnny can’t be the version of himself that would make him — and Louise — happy, and cause less chaos and destruction to the world outside.
If you haven’t seen Naked, I admit I’d suggest catching up with it on the Criterion Channel as part of their Mike Leigh series over watching Guest of Honour. But either film will leave you hungry for more of Thewlis just acting.
If you do catch up with Naked, you may want to grab our recent ebook on Mike Leigh, Peterloo in process: A Mike Leigh collaboration. In our conversations with Mike Leigh’s long-term collaborators, like cinematographer Dick Pope and makeup designer Christine Blundell, they talk about their work on Naked, a film they still see as a modern masterpiece 25 years later. I’d thoroughly agree. It’s a great companion to Naked, one of David Thewlis’s best films.
Calling all Mike Leigh fans
With Peterloo in Process, uncover the magic behind Mike Leigh’s working process
as told by the man himself and the people who work with him.