The Austin Chronicle

Under the Skin

Not rated, 85 min. Directed by Carine Adler. Starring Samantha Morton, Claire Rushbrook, Rita Tushingham, Stuart Townsend, Christine Tremarco.

REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., June 12, 1998

Samantha Morton makes a stunning acting debut in this wrenching British drama about two sisters, one of whom descends into a self-destructive spiral after the sudden death of their mother. We are told at the outset that Rose (Rushbrook, who is best known for her role as the jealous daughter in Secrets & Lies) and Iris (Morton) each received their names because their mother liked flowers so. Of the two girls, however, Iris has always believed that her mother liked the elder Rose more. Whether this is an actual fact or merely the fretful pangs of normal maturation is unclear, but what is certain is that the two sisters are both rivals for their mother's love. Rose, at 24 years of age, married, and pregnant, seems to be the stronger contender for the favored daughter slot, especially when compared with her flightier, 19-year-old sister Iris. Yet both girls are thoroughly unprepared for the emotional devastation they experience subsequent to their mother's sudden passing. (In a lovely turn, the mother is played by Rita Tushingham, the star of such social realist dramas of the Sixties as A Taste of Honey and The Knack… and How to Get It.) Unable to grieve, Iris quits her job and moves out of the apartment she shares with her live-in boyfriend and into a shabby studio that she decorates with flowers that linger about the rooms long after their expiration dates. She begins wearing her mother's overcoat and blonde wig meant to disguise the effects of chemotherapy, but the look it affords Iris is slatternly and confrontational. She also starts picking up handsome strangers for an ongoing series of experimental sexual encounters that grow increasingly degrading and, one hopes, cathartic. The long-seated tensions between the sisters mount as each grapples with finding a way to assuage her sense of abandoned misery and is too caught up in the singularity of her own pain to be of much help to the other. Writer-director Adler handles this potential hothouse atmosphere with graceful restraint and evocatively expressionist touches. She trusts her actors to do their thing and then punctuates the story with flourishes like the odd visual angles and juxtapositions (most notably, during sex Iris sees her mother's casket incinerating), jittery hand-held camerawork, and pulsating music. Adler does a remarkable job of conveying the kind of anguished soul sickness that is at a loss for words or conventional expression. The movie only falters as it brings all this pained discontent to peaceful resolution. Adler indeed takes us “under the skin” but then it's as though she performs a transfusion without ever showing us the needle prick (although pricks of another sort are in ample supply throughout the movie). Under the Skin, however, well lives up to its name.

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