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Film review: Under the Skin


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Almost a decade after the unsettling and underrated 2004 feature Birth, director Jonathan Glazer finally returns with Under the Skin, an admirably ambitious and often astonishing British thriller.

Based on the novel by Michel Faber, the film proves a puzzling blend of highly-stylised science fiction and grim documentary realism.

Under the Skin

Behind the wheel of her white van, Scarlett Johansson’s mysterious protagonist roams incessantly along Scottish roads, searching the grey city streets and bleak rural landscapes for lonely young men to lure back to her lair. Just as he did with Nicole Kidman in Birth, Glazer works hard to test the glamorous image of his world-renowned star.

Johansson is thoroughly convincing as an outsider not only learning to utilise her powers over the opposite sex but also coming to understand the implications of her actions. Fur-clad and high-heeled, her intriguing combination of classical beauty, frumpy dress and uncertain gestures means that the film never feels simply an excuse to parade the star’s seductive charms.

Though a masterclass in mood and ambiguity, the marketing campaign has somewhat mis-sold the film, distilling only one of its aspects into the gripping trailer and minimal, abstract poster, and even proposing that in Glazer ‘we may finally have an heir to Kubrick.’

The film itself could never have delivered on that promise, for it in fact deals with the meeting of the otherworldly and the utterly mundane, frequently forsaking the beautifully composed, somewhat Kubrickian aesthetic for documentary-style shots of bright, sterilised department stores and cold inner-city Glasgow.

Of course these sections help to convey the perspective of an outsider looking in, but they jar so completely with the stunning, unearthly images that the marketing team understandably exploited that the film as a whole feels slightly disjointed.

The highlights are exceptional, including a number of wonderfully unnerving scenes and many indelible images, but unfortunately too much of the film drags, with Glazer slackening the pace and tension in favour of a few too many long, ponderous sections. Mica Levi’s score, however, is outstanding, her screeching strings and steady, pulsing drums not simply underlining but compounding the slow horror of the piece.

Curiously, for a film that so often astounds the end result is strangely underwhelming. It promised so much, and regrettably fails to capitalise on its full potential, but for its greatest moments – and there are many – Under the Skin should be applauded as an unusually odd, haunting, and challenging British film.

Under the Skin (2013), directed by Jonathan Glazer, is in cinemas now, released by StudioCanal, Certificate 15.

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