Under the Skin (2013) – spoiler free review!


Scarlett Johansson plays a woman who drives around Scotland picking up male hitchhikers for reasons most suspicious. There you go; that’s all I’m giving away plot-wise for both Michel Faber’s original 2000 novel and Jonathan Glazer’s striking new cinematic adaptation. The less you know, the more effective that first time experience will be, I’m sure. The book didn’t surprise me as much as it could have as I’d become aware of its plot developments prior to reading it. A film based on said book will also have the same issues. Saying that, Glazer does do plenty of different things with his film version, keeping the spirit of the novel but making his version all his own. The film is uncompromisingly oblique and gives no easy answers – having read the book might help you out with it all first time, though it’s not necessary to have done so.

Even if you have read the book, first impressions of the film of Under the Skin might still be one of bewilderment – this is a wild, visually audacious and extremely strange experience, blending the unearthly with the quotidian to disorienting effect. At times the film could be a fly-on-the-wall documentary. At others it might very well blow your mind. Despite the star presence of Johansson, this is no mainstream vehicle, bordering on arthouse – the story is quite simple but the execution is extraordinary. Beautiful, bleak, tender, brutal; some unwitting multiplex visitors are really, really going to hate this. Others will love it. Some, like me, will find its qualities all too much to take in a single sitting – this is how I felt about last year’s Only God Forgives in that I knew I liked it, but did I love it? What was this film?

I can tell you this much – Under the Skin plays out like some kind of blurred dream, so don’t expect immediate coherence, do expect touches of dazzling atmosphere, a remarkably dissonant music score and a performance from Johansson that’s her best ever – striking, sensual, remote yet sympathetic… she’s pretty much perfect for the role. Given that she’s been an actor I’ve rarely loved or hated (good performances here and there, but nothing I’ve gone crazy for) she’s completely won me over. Also, for UK viewers – seeing her walk past shops like Claire’s Accessories and Clinton’s Cards is a sight that boggles the mind in its mix of the glamorous and the mundane. My review’s probably given you as much answers as the film itself – once you’ve seen it I hope you’ll appreciate what I was trying to go for!


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