Under The Skin: Review
By Josh Horwood.
Directed Jonathan Glazer, 108mins, on DVD and Blu-Ray now
Under the Skin is destined for status as a classic. A free adaptation of Michel Faber’s novel of the same name, director Jonathan Glazer and his writer Walter Campbell strip the novel of most of its story. No longer is it a satirical take on factory farming and processed food, it is instead an insidious, uncomfortable and uncompromising examination of what it means to be human. Even the novel’s lead character, Isserley, is robbed of her name and is morphed into a nameless alien, driving aimlessly around Glasgow until she finds a man to pick up in her white van.
Under the Skin opens with a four-minute abstract sequence that culminates in the birthing of an eye. This tells us immediately that we are watching a film about perspective and about something artificial, not human, made to look like us but not one of us. The sequence combines mesmerising visuals and a startling score by Mica Levi, both of which remain consistently good throughout the film.
Glazer has spoken previously about his struggle to bring this to the screen, which comes 13 years after his last, Sexy Beast. He wrote one adaptation that was much more faithful, he says, but threw it out because it was no good at all. Then he attempted a second, which also came to nothing. He finally hit on what he found intriguing about the source text: the main character, her perspective and her lack of human emotion. He had been in touch with Scarlett Johansson constantly and it is on her performance that the film hangs. In the past couple of years, she has shown mastery of blockbuster performance in the ever expanding and mind-numbing Marvel Cinematic Universe and the preposterous Lucy and of art-house nuance with a sublime vocal turn in Spike Jonze’s Her and, to a lesser extent, in Joseph Gordon–Levitt’s directorial debut Don Jon. Johansson is masked under a black wig, department store clothes and make up and an implacable BBC accent. With these tools, she drives up to pedestrians most of whom are non-actors (Glazer insisted on filming on actual streets with genuine passers-by to increase the film’s realism) and stuns us as an audience. We follow the alien with Johansson only needing to hint at what rests below her surface, a very fine tightrope to walk. There is a distressing scene in which a family drowns on a beach; we scream for humanity but Johansson’s alien responds simply with casual indifference at the desperation to save lives. The film is paced in a slow, trance like fashion that is engrossing and there are plenty of moody location shots, which are captured breathtakingly by director of photography Daniel Landin.
Jonathan Glazer masterminds a film that is unlike anything I’ve seen before: a sequence in a shopping arcade becomes uncomfortable and squeamish; a simple point of view shot out of a van window turns random pedestrians into targets. Mica Levi’s score is haunting, ethereal and like nothing I have heard before. The film is a visual marvel and is led by a career best performance from Scarlett Johansson. It’s an outrage that it wasn’t more widely recognised by the BAFTAs or shown any love at all by the Oscars.
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