Under The Skin

***1/2

Reviewed by: Paul Griffiths

Although Lynn Ramsay's adaptation of Morvern Callar is often seen as Samantha Morton's breakthrough role, her first crack at a lead film performance came way back in 1997, in Under The Skin. And if the ambitious TV actress was looking to showcase her intensity and commitment, she certainly found a fitting feature.

Having first shown her measure on the small screen in diverse roles, from prostitute (Band Of Gold) to society ingénue (Emma), Morton stars in Carine Adler's altogether artier affair. Critically acclaimed when released, the film went on to receive the Michael Powell Best British feature at the 1997 Edinburgh International Film Festival, the Critics' Award at that year's Toronto International Film Festival and was officially selected for Sundance in 1998.

Iris (Morton) and Rose (Claire Rushbrook) are visiting their mother (Rita Tushingham). Morton's regularly occurrent voice-over quickly informs us that mum is terminally ill. As the sisters fuss about, or don't, their bubbling sibling rivalry becomes apparent, as do their insecure shades and foibles.

Happily married Rose is settled, has a good job, is heavily pregnant and seems to get on with mum so much easier than Iris, who is more petulant, unhappily bored with her selfish boyfriend and jealous of the attention the fuddy Rose receives. With much in common, there are also believable distances between them.

With this situation, simply but determinedly portrayed, grief then shatters their small contemporary Merseyside world when mum dies. The film moves with Iris, as the shock of bereavement begins to pervade her life.

Slowly, but with tragic inevitability, she loses her struggle to cope. Moving out, she begins to change. Her abandoned sense of being becomes reflected in attempts to lose herself in alcohol and a series of frank, unsatisfactory sexual liaisons.

Morton blisters with intensity, as she works hard to invest Iris with enough credibility and dimension to avoid the character becoming an artful vehicle. Never one for a weak turn, she is mesmerising.

In many ways, Iris is still a little girl, dependent on her mother more than she knows, and when eventually forced into adulthood, Morton keeps the transition riveting. As Iris's sense of self disintegrates, donning her mother's wig, introducing herself as Rose and role-playing in one-night stands, Morton's committed performance becomes altogether enthralling, disturbing and quietly terrifying.

Alder's screenplay combines earthy dialogue with present tense voice-over to make a compelling narrative arc. Although a little clunky at first, once Iris is established the film finds its expression and voice - then proceeds to let it waver.

Rather than a meditation on bereavement, Alder's central character becomes expressive in a wider feminist discourse, as Iris loses her sense of integrated identity. In reaction, she turns for gratification in soulless sexual relations and battles to become a woman, independent of her previous, mothered self. She has to experiment, almost regress, through her body, dream narratives and telephone calls, to find a place once again in and outside of conventional society.

Adler uses worn, low budget techniques to get close to her protagonist and convey the disintegration of an internal life. Slo-mo and freeze frame join a fair amount of unsteady, hand-held camerawork and a montage, or two, of swirling lights. However, its use is definite, certainly not amateurish, and complements the provocative screenplay and powerful performance, informing rather than detracting. Some viewers complained of the disorientating feeling Adler sometimes provokes - high praise, in fact, as this is precisely the intention.

With a visual and story style, reminiscent of Ken Loach, Alder uses the ever-dependable Tushingham to bring a tangential line from the kitchen sink dramas of the Sixties, which supports the gritty, unglamorous settings through which Iris drifts.

In polar opposite, mention should be made of the specially written tracks from long-term techno pioneers, The Advent. Their foreboding and bassy beats pulsate regularly throughout, reinforcing the modernity of Iris's lifestyle.

Alder's direction does a mature job of conveying the anguish that loss creates, that words alone cannot convey, while assuredly placing the film within a challenging, yet accessible, feminist context.

Jarring and unsettling at times, this is a cut above most film debuts, for director and star. More suited to the arthouse than the multiplex, a timely DVD re-release will bring Under The Skin to a more adventurous, discerning home audience.

Reviewed on: 10 Feb 2005
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An exploration of grief and identity through an experiment in feminist cinematic expression.
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Director: Carine Adler

Writer: Carine Adler

Starring: Samantha Morton, Claire Rushbrook, Rita Tushingham, Christine Tremarco, Stuart Townsend, Matthew Delamere, Mark Womack, Clare Francis, Joe Tucker, Daniel O'Meara

Year: 1997

Runtime: 82 minutes

BBFC: 18 - Age Restricted

Country: UK

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