Under The Skin (15)

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Under The Skin (15)

  • Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Antonia Campbell-Hughes, Paul Brannigan
  • Director: Jonathan Glazer
  • Duration: 107 mins
  • Year: 2013

A beautiful young woman called Laura drives around the country in her large van, picking up unsuspecting men like Andrew with the promise of sex. Little do they know she is an earthbound extra-terrestrial.


Alison Rowat's Review

Watching this weird and wired science fiction drama set largely in Glasgow, one cannot help but feel VisitScotland is missing a trick. Instead of rolling out the tartan carpet for visitors from overseas, reps should be hitching a ride on the first Richard Branson rocket out of here and courting the alien market. If ever a city offered an out of this world, aff yer heid experience it is our dear green place. The same goes for Jonathan Glazer’s film.

Starring Scarlett Johansson as an extraterrestrial who falls to Earth in search of men to meet and eat, Under the Skin is the most bizarre film to be linked to Scotland since Brigadoon. As such, it will sharply divide opinion between those who see it as bold and visionary and those who are left colder than a month-old fish supper. And that is before the devotees of Michel Faber’s novel, on which the picture is loosely based, get started.

Under the Skin is a film that asks the viewer to surrender to, and become intoxicated by, its disturbing embrace. Either that or jump on the first train out. That it manages to be so discombobulating while having as its lead one of the most box office-friendly actresses in the world is one of the many factors which make Glazer’s picture so remarkable.

Johansson plays “The Girl”, the change in name the first of many diversions the picture takes from Faber’s novel of 2000. In the book, as Isserley drives up and down the A9 her true nature and purpose is only hinted at initially. Here, Glazer, working from his own screenplay co-written by Walter Campbell, throws the viewer in at the deep end, without a lifebelt.

The Girl/Johansson, dressed in a fake fur jacket, her blonde hair turned a mucky brown, is seen cruising the streets of Glasgow in a white van. Her odyssey takes her through the east end, and audiences from these parts can have fun playing spot the urban wasteland bingo.

If this had been tourist board inspired, she would doubtless have had tea in a chi-chi hotel, gone shopping at the Italian Centre, and popped into the Hydro for a concert. Here, her itinerary includes the Gallowgate and Parkhead.

Buchanan Galleries is as glamorous as it gets, and if there are more bizarre sights than Ms Johansson cruising past Claire’s Accessories the human imagination would struggle to conjure them. Perhaps only the vision of Johansson in the stands at Ibrox with Craig Whyte would come close.

In the book, hitch-hikers are the prey. Here, she entices men into the van by asking directions. Those selected seem not to have a clue as to what is going on.

Either they are actors worthy of Baftas, or they were in the dark in every sense, and so it proves. Glazer created many of these sequences using hidden cameras trained on unsuspecting passers-by. The result is akin

to Candid Camera on hallucinogenic drugs, by turns funny and unsettling. One is left with two conclusions: first, Glaswegians go all round the houses when giving directions (which we knew) and second, many of them are in need of an urgent visit to Specsavers if they cannot recognise Johansson, even with brown hair. Not all of them are unwitting civilians, with Paul Brannigan (The Angels’ Share, River City) among those who find her charms hard to resist.

At the Glasgow Film Festival closing gala, where the film had its Scottish premiere, there was an audience member at the Q&A afterwards who took exception to what they saw as a negative, stereotypical view of Glasgow. True, this is no glossy travelogue, but it is recognisably real. The covert filming, far from being a too clever by half ruse or a cheat, is in keeping with the film’s general vibe. It gives viewers the sense that we too are strangers in a strange land, seeing the most commonplace sights from new, deeply unsettling angles.

Glazer arrived in feature films after a long, successful career as a maker of commercials and music videos. His eye for an arresting image can be seen here as he works round the limitations of the budget to create an eerily convincing world within a world. Aiding immeasurably in that process is music by Mica Levi that makes even the wackiest of Bjork’s creations sound like Kylie Minogue at her poppiest.

Unlike Sexy Beast, Glazer’s debut film, Under the Skin could hardly be accused of courting its audience by providing an inviting spin on a familiar tale. One scene in particular provokes viewers much the same way as a poke in the eye can fair put a kink in your day.

Adding to the alienation levels are long stretches where very little goes on. Yet the whole is so distinctive, so beguiling, so in keeping with the otherworldly spirit of the book (despite the ruthless stripping down), that it becomes intoxicating. As walks on the weird side go, this one is a trip to remember.