Reviewing Under the Skin is not a simple thing to do. It’s a mainstream film that’s more arthouse than a dozen festival entries. It has a Hollywood star who blends into the Glasgow background. And it’s adapted from a novel whose plot it barely acknowledges. In short, we’re dealing with something out of the ordinary.
There is a novel called Under the Skin. It’s by Michel Faber and should I ever be on Desert Island Discs it will be on the shortlist for inclusion. A very hard novel to describe, although the Wikipedia entry does a pretty good job, it is one of those whose essential themes and observations stay with you long after the details of the plot have lost their clarity. Which is just as well as this adaptation takes very little of the plot and leaves us instead with some of the observations and a lot of the eerie and enigmatic interaction between the alien and the human, and the natural world around them, as well as adding a few more layers in between. To say this is a marmite film would imply marmite had never divided opinion – as an indicator, on Amazon there are 80 five star reviews and 100 one star reviews, with hardly any in between.
The film is set mostly in Glasgow and Scarlett Johannson is our female protagonist. She abducts lonely and alone men and then, in a ritual more at home in a modern dance production, they are killed whilst nakedly anticipating sex. But, wordlessly, she is drawn more to the wonder and beauty of the Highlands and to the other things that make life worth living including, but not limited to, a black forest gateau in a quaint hotel. The story, such as it is, does not end well. Too much empathy for humanity means no abductions. Our heroine is doomed, but we pretty much knew that from the start.
Where the film really does triumph is in the direction of ‘real life’ and its soundtrack. Glasgow’s working class streets are rarely shown and even more rarely are they populated by actual people. People who are not judged but who are just getting on and whose lives are, genuinely, worthy of intrigued exploration. This is all very cleverly done by Jonathan Glazer. The use of strong-accented natives is presumably a way of increasing the disconnect, especially when Johannson talks in straightforward RP. The music to accompany this is striking in its apparent simplicity.
There is also a strong performance from Johannson. If you said ‘she uses her body’ you’d think it’d be all lingering shots like a reprise of Lost in Translation. You would be wrong. Yes, she does use her body and yes, it is all on display. But there can’t be many occasions when a genuine Hollywood beauty has had that beauty framed so prosaically or whose increase in wonder at the natural world has been done so tenderly, so subtly. It is restrained, it is the reason to watch.
But, overall, is this a five star or a one star film? The problem these days is so few films like Under the Skin make it anywhere near the mainstream. This isn’t the 1970s when experimentation and weirdness was allowable. Nobody wants subtle aliens observing snatches of life and then staring at a tree for a bit. Even if the pay-off for that is the kind of emotional ending that is only possible in wordless art.
So, there’s nothing to compare it against. Not really. I’d give it five stars for trying and because I really want there to be more out there like this. But I don’t think it works totally and I don’t think it’s as well realised as its source novel. Faber’s work has enough to keep you going back but having seen the film once I’ve no need to see it again. The direction is clever, the photography and acting top drawer but what’s missing is the thing that our protagonist also lacks: depth. There is not enough under that skin.