Under the Skin (United Kingdom, 1997)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

There are times when a performance can carry an entire motion picture, and Under the Skin is an example. The subject matter, while not inherently uninteresting, doesn't break barriers or attempt anything radical. The script is solid and effective, but not extraordinary. The director, first time film maker Carine Adler, shows promise but lacks polish, in part because her verite approach bears a resemblance to the styles of Mike Leigh and Ken Loach (the cinematographer, Barry Ackroyd, is a longtime Loach collaborator). But all of these things pale into insignificance in the light of Under the Skin's principal performance, a stunning debut by 20 year-old Samantha Morton.

The film is an examination of unresolved grief, and the way it can erode a person's identity. Iris (Morton) and Rose (Claire Rushbrook) are sisters. Iris is the younger, wilder child; Rose, who is five years older, is happily married and pregnant. The two of them are subtle rivals for the love and attention of their aging mother (Rita Tushingham), but, when Mum dies unexpectedly, it widens the gulf between the two girls rather than bringing them together. Rose reacts to the tragedy as one might expect – she is sad and cries, then gets on with her life. Iris, however, doesn't shed a tear and shows contempt for her sister's grief, but her personality starts to disintegrate. She begins a search for something (comfort? affection? attention?) that throws her into a downward moral spiral of sex-and-alcohol binges.

Morton makes Iris real. Every moment she's on screen, the actress forces us to accept Iris as a living, breathing individual. This is a raw, riveting performance – deeply moving and free of artifice. Morton handles the complete range of emotions expertly, from the subtle (watch the longing in her face as she observes a choir singing) to the overt (a wrenching breakdown). In committing herself totally to this portrayal, she gives Adler everything she has, allowing herself to be captured on camera in a state of both physical and emotional nakedness.

Morton is backed by a fine supporting cast. Claire Rushbrook, who is perhaps best known for a role in Mike Leigh's Secrets & Lies, fashions Rose into a three-dimensional individual. The character has the difficult task of balancing anxiety for her sister with her own family concerns and sense of loss, so what seems like self-absorption is really a defense mechanism. Rita Tushingham, a star from the '50s and '60s, has a small role as Iris and Rose's mother. Stuart Townsend, one of the principals in Shooting Fish, is Tom, one of Iris' lovers.

Adler's approach, which includes a lot of hand-held camera shots to achieve a documentary-like look, is effective in bringing out the best in Morton's performance. Under the Skin is emotionally potent; we are not left on the outside looking in. It's important to the director that viewers become absorbed in Iris' sordid world, and that we feel her despair and confusion. There's a note of hope at the end that keeps us from leaving the theater in a suicidal funk.

Before being picked up by Arrow Entertainment for a limited U.S. theatrical run (the distributor is too small to finance anything large), Under the Skin made its way around the festival circuit, playing to world-wide acclaim. It won the 1997 Toronto Film Festival International Critics Award, the 1997 Edinburgh International Film Festival Michael Powell Award for Best British Feature, and was an official selection for the 1998 Sundance Film Festival. While such a landslide of recognition doesn't always guarantee quality, this is a case when at least a portion of the accolades is deserved. Under the Skin is a fine movie, and features one of the best debut performances of the year.

Under the Skin (United Kingdom, 1997)

Director: Carine Adler
Cast: Samantha Morton, Claire Rushbrook, Rita Tushingham, Stuart Townsend, Christine Tremarco, Matthew Delamere, Mark Womack
Screenplay: Carine Adler
Cinematography: Barry Ackroyd
Music: Ilona Sekacz
U.S. Distributor: Arrow Entertainment
Run Time: 1:25
U.S. Release Date: 1998-05-22
MPAA Rating: "NR" (Sexual Content, Nudity, Profanity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1