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Under the Skin (1997)

Your body betrays your soul.

Rating: 7/10

Running Time: 79 minutes

UK Certificate: 18


The films In America (2002), ‘Morvern Callar’ (2002), Minority Report (2002) and Code 46 (2003) may all be very different, but in each of them Samantha Morton has given a masterful performance as a vulnerable young woman who has lost a loved one. Yet unlike Tom Cruise’s self-doubting alpha male, Woody Allen’s lovable neurotic or Ben Stiller’s, er, lovable neurotic, Morton’s stock in trade has never seemed grating or even repetitive, since she manages to bring to each successive rôle previously uncharted shades of fragility – and looking back at her big screen debut in ‘Under the Skin’ (1997), reveals that she has long been a natural at plumbing the depths of grief and loss.

Iris (Morton) and Rose (Claire Rushbrook) have always vied for the attention of their beloved mother (Rita Tushingham), whose death from a brain tumour leaves the sisters with a host of unresolved feelings. Rose at least is a career woman and a wife, and soon to be a mother, but the younger Iris has little to fall back on now that she has ceased being a daughter, and in her pain and confusion goes about trying to reinvent herself in all the wrong ways. She quits her job, moves out of the flat which she has shared with her boyfriend of two years, starts wearing her mother’s garish wig and clothes, distances herself from Rose, and embarks on a string of casual and increasingly humiliating sexual liaisons with strangers who she hopes will fill the emptiness inside her. With her behaviour becoming ever more erratic and her situation more desperate, Iris at last faces some home truths with her sister.

Writer/director Carine Adler’s feature debut combines aching lyricism with emotional brutality to depict a woman’s rough rites of passage into independence. The otherwise naturalistic dialogue and bleak settings are invested with a touch of poetry through the integration of some simple but effective metaphors – Iris’ alienation is figured by a scene where she finds herself literally disconnected by the telephone services, while her disorientation is visualised by her wandering dreamily through the storage corridors of a Lost Property Office where she has begun working, just another neglected object waiting to be found and loved again.

Yet it is Morton’s mesmerising central performance that is the film’s strongest magnet. Narrating the story in an immediate present tense, and dominating every scene, Morton plays Iris as a little girl summoned prematurely into adulthood, with only a child’s conception of how grown-ups dress, behave and interact – and with a sexuality that is far from fully formed. Morton shows Iris in all her infuriating contrariness, without ever letting the viewer forget how damaged and essentially innocent she is, in a raw, unflinching portrayal that announces the arrival of one of cinema’s most extraordinary talents. Long may she continue grieving on our screens!

It's Got: Samantha Morton at her very best (although of course she always is), in an intense and intimate performance.

It Needs: Grief counselling.

DVD Extras Scene selection; trailer; Fever (17min), a short film from 1994 written and directed by Carine Adler, and starring the late great Katrin Cartlidge as Claire, a confused, fickle and needy woman who cannot decide between men, and really just wants to give her mother (Linda Marlowe) a good slap - it is a much lighter affair than Under the Skin, but thematically similar enough to complement it well. DVD Extras Rating: 4/10


In this amazing feature debut, Samantha Morton has already perfected the extremes of loss, grief and despair.