Despite occasional stumbles, "Under the Skin" is an impressive, highly involving feature debut by writer-director Carine Adler. Virtually plotless pic about a grief-stricken 19-year-old who embarks on a sexual odyssey as an open faucet for her inner rage largely manages to sustain its running time, thanks to an attention-grabbing performance by newcomer Samantha Morton and a script that juggles complementary moods of anger, tough comedy, the surreal and sex-soaked metaphysics.

Despite occasional stumbles, “Under the Skin” is an impressive, highly involving feature debut by writer-director Carine Adler. Virtually plotless pic about a grief-stricken 19-year-old who embarks on a sexual odyssey as an open faucet for her inner rage largely manages to sustain its running time, thanks to an attention-grabbing performance by newcomer Samantha Morton and a script that juggles complementary moods of anger, tough comedy, the surreal and sex-soaked metaphysics. Though the intimate, $1 million low-budgeter beat out competition from 18 other titles at the Edinburgh fest to win the Michael Powell Award for best British feature, it will pose a major marketing challenge to any theatrical distrib, even in the U.K.

Film is set in Liverpool over a two-month period, at the start of which Iris (Morton) and her older sister, Rose (Claire Rushbrook), are poleaxed by the sudden death from a brain tumor of their mom (Rita Tushingham, briefly seen). Their dad left 10 years ago for Australia, and the two very different women are suddenly left parentless.

Iris is restless and a dreamer, and has a somewhat boring boyfriend, Gary (Matthew Delamere); Rose, settled into suburban life, is married to reliable Frank (Mark Womack) and seven months pregnant. One night, Iris bumps into a young Irishman, Tom (Stuart Townsend, who plays a Brit in “Shooting Fish”), in a movie theater and they have spontaneous sex in an alley.

Donning her mom’s wig, fur coat and sunglasses, Iris becomes increasingly prey to erotic fantasies (heard in v.o.), casual sex (including a drunken attempt on Frank), and her obsession with the mysteriously itinerant Tom. Meanwhile, her relationships with buttoned-up Rose and best friend Vron (Christine Tremarco) are pushed to the limit.

Largely shot hand-held, in close-up and medium shot, and freely cut, sometimes using jumps, the picture still has more the feel of a movie — albeit small — than a slice of gritty docudrama. Barry Ackroyd’s deceptively skillful lensing, which ranges from the highly colored to the flat and workaday, perfectly mirrors the shifting moods in Adler’s emotionally scatter-gun heroine, and really does give a subcutaneous feel to the pic.

Probably wisely, Adler spends no time in any slow progression to Iris’ sex binge: Instead, she establishes an irreal mood right from the main titles, and leaves enough room in the often impressionistic script for audiences to take or leave some of the encounters and voiceovers as true or imagined.

Pic dips marginally at the halfway point, but is rescued by a black sense of humor (initially in a phone-sex encounter with Tom) that turns the tables on the audience and prepares them for the final stretch, where anything by the out-of-control Iris seems possible. Only in the fantasies involving the dead mom does the movie seriously miscalculate.

Morton, herself 19 and until now a TV actress, is most impressive as the in-your-face Iris, and is at least half the reason for the film’s success. As her sister, Rushbrook (Roxanne in “Secrets & Lies”) makes a good, if obvious, contrast, with a trace element of Mike Leigh in her playing. Tremarco is natural as Iris’ working-girl best friend, and the men serviceable.

The music track, from hard disco-beat to ethereal classical, does a lot to heighten the movie’s challenging emotional mix. Merseyside accents are mostly mild, and visually the picture is restrained, given its subject matter.

Under the Skin

British

Production

A BFI Films release (in U.K.) of a British Film Institute/Channel 4 Television presentation of a Strange Dog production, in association with Rouge Films and Merseyside Film Production Fund. (International sales: BFI Films, London.) Produced by Kate Ogborn. Executive producer (for BFI), Ben Gibson. Directed, written by Carine Adler.

Crew

Camera (color), Barry Ackroyd; editor, Ewa Lind; music, Ilona Sekacz; production design, John-Paul Kelly; art direction, Niall Mulroney; costume design, Frances Tempest; sound (Dolby), Gary Desmond, Paul Hamblin; assistant director, Gus Maclean. Reviewed at Edinburgh Film Festival, Aug. 21, 1997. (Also in Venice, Toronto festivals.) Running time: 81 MIN.

With

Iris - Samantha Morton
Rose - Claire Rushbrook
Their mother - Rita Tushingham
Frank - Mark Womack
Gary - Matthew Delamere
Vron - Christine Tremarco
Tom - Stuart Townsend
With: Clare Francis, Joe Tucker, Daniel O'Meara, Lisa Millet, Jack Marsden.

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