Having carved out a Hollywood career of some 15+ years, actress Rose Byrne probably hasn’t received the credit she deserves. She certainly hasn’t developed the profile that fellow Aussie actresses such as Cate Blanchett, Toni Collette, Naomi Watts and, more recently, Margot Robbie, currently enjoy, yet she has seamlessly switched between drama (The Place Beyond the Pines, Insidious), comedy (Bridesmaids, I Give it a Year), action blockbusters (X-Men Apocolypse) and television (Damages) since first making her mark alongside Heath Ledger in Two Hands (1999). Even in movies that are otherwise underwhelming (such as Bad Neighbours and its sequel), Byrne has often been a shining light amid the drudgery. There is a likeability and luminousness about her that lights up the screen in whatever scenario she finds herself and that is again the case here as a museum curator stuck in a dead-end relationship with one of the most annoyingly insipid characters ever to grace the screen. This won’t go down as her most profound or challenging performance, but it is Byrne who is largely responsible for making Juliet, Naked far more enjoyable than it might have otherwise been.
Annie (Byrne) and Duncan (Chris O’Dowd) have been together for 15 years, living in the small British seaside town of Sandcliff where Claire runs the local historical museum. Duncan is a lecturer at a third-rate local college and a music fan of the type we all know and hate. He is obsessed with a once-popular (albeit briefly) American singer-songwriter named Tucker Crowe, who disappeared 20 years ago after releasing an album called Juliet. Duncan’s obsession includes running a website dedicated to all things Tucker Crowe that enables him to connect with other like-minded losers. Immediately upon meeting Duncan, you will find yourself asking what it could possibly be that Annie ever found appealing about him. Certainly any sheen there may have been to his personality has certainly lost its lustre. The problem for Annie though is that she is stuck in a rut, having lived in the town her entire life and questioning the decisions she has made (but no doubt relieved beyond all measure that she and Duncan never married) and trying to imagine what the future may hold.
When a package arrives containing previously unheard demo versions of the songs on the Crowe album, Annie passes comment on the recordings via Duncan’s website, a review that prompts a response from the man himself. Having left any thought of a music career in the dust, Crowe (Ethan Hawke) is living in a shed behind his ex-wife’s house, ostensibly to be close to his young son Jackson (Azhy Robertson), one of several children he has scattered around the world and with whom he has varying levels of estrangement. After much email banter between them, Tucker and Annie finally meet in London, albeit in vastly different circumstances than intended. There is lot of fun to be had in the various complications of Tucker’s past relationships and it is easy to think of several very well known musicians who almost certainly served as inspiration for author Nick Hornby, on whose book the film is based. Hawke seems to be having fun as the hapless Crowe and the chemistry between he and Byrne makes the burgeoning friendship between Annie and Tucker seem genuine despite its unlikeliness, serving as the catalyst for both of them to stake stock of their future.
Of the additional characters, none play any significant part in the narrative trajectory of the key players, with Annie’s quirky queer sister Ros (Lily Brazier) presenting as a tokenistic inclusion of an LGBTQ character more than anything else, although it is possible that she may have a more significant presence in the book. Director Jesse Peretz has secured another delightful performance from Byrne, who articulates Annie’s frustrations with subtlety and a sense of resignation, until Duncan’s deceit provides her with the impetus to launch a new chapter in her life. As the arrogant boorish blowhard with a petulant sense of entitlement that far exceeds his station in life, it is a nice change-up for O’Dowd, even if Duncan is so utterly detestable in every way. Although Juliet, Naked draws upon many familiar rom-com tropes, it is dense with contemporary ideas amidst the humour and manages to avoid the pitfall of a straightforward happily-ever-after scenario, whilst leaving the audience with the possibility that everything might just work out in the end.