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Will sci-fi Under the Skin be the British film to beat at the BAFTAs?


When it premiered at the 2013 Venice Film Festival, Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin vociferously divided opinion, critics split between whether it was a self-indulgent wallow in atmosphere or a visionary masterpiece.

The film generated the same reaction from audiences when it finally made its UK bow back in March of this year. But of the two camps, I'm firmly in the latter: I think the film is truly astonishing, utterly unique and very disturbing.

Very loosely inspired by Michel Faber's book of the same name, the film stars Scarlett Johansson as an unnamed alien in human form, prowling the streets of Glasgow in a van searching for hitchhikers. What she does with these unfortunate souls – lured in on the promise of casual sex – almost defies description, as indeed does the film as a whole.

So with that in mind, here are my reasons as to why Under the Skin deserves serious consideration at next year's BAFTAs...

It's the sort of art-house oddity we don't get enough of nowadays

Ever since Mulholland Dr. visionary David Lynch stepped away from feature films to open Parisian nightclubs, and Don't Look Now director Nicolas Roeg slipped into retirement, there has been a genuine dearth of movies that aim to work primarily on the emotions and senses first, and the intellect second.

Under the Skin proudly resurrects this tradition, channelling the spirit of both Lynch and Roeg (especially the latter's David Bowie-starrer The Man Who Fell to Earth) whilst carving out an identity of its own. The film may not have a coherent narrative to speak of – in fact it doesn't – but, brilliantly, is able to juxtapose sound and imagery to convey the emotional journey of Johansson's 'character.'

It gives new meaning to the phrase 'candid camera'

The story of the film's production, like Richard Linklater's Boyhood, is now famous. Although the film boasts kaleidoscopic, surrealist vistas (most memorably in the opening 'birth' sequence where Johansson appears to take human form for the first time), a great deal of the movie focuses on the scenes in the van.

Nothing remarkable about that you might say – except that the vehicle was rigged with hidden cameras, Johansson essentially sent undercover and in disguise to pick up men who seemingly didn't know who she was. The film's blend of grandiose visuals and near-documentary realism creates a genuinely peculiar atmosphere and does something that very few sci-movies actually do: make us view ourselves with alien eyes.

Scarlett Johansson is unforgettable

One of Glazer's directorial masterstrokes was to get Hollywood star Johansson and take her a million light years outside her comfort zone. And she responds with a brave and impenetrable performance that, subtly, shows an extraterrestrial veneer beginning to erode in the face of human compassion.

From cold-hearted beginnings in her character's dispassionate treatment of the ill-fated hitchhikers, Johansson shows a gradual awakening within her character, stemming from when she meets a lonely man tragically struck down with neurofibromatosis (played by real-life sufferer, Adam Pearson).

Johansson's skill in conveying the essence of an otherwordly creature who gradually becomes more human is one of the year's most wonderfully unsettling performances.

It's only the third film Glazer has made

He's the man behind British crime classic Sexy Beast, the film that (in)famously cast Ben Kingsley as a vicious, terrifying gangster, and Nicole Kidman oddity Birth. So the release of a new film by Glazer is always worth celebrating.

Under the Skin hones the darkly comic atmosphere of the former and the polished visuals of the latter to create an entity that is unmistakeably a work of the director: one that proudly displays its many cinematic influences (Stanley Kubrick being another) but which has its own twisted identity.

Glazer's commitment also deserves a mention: he spent 10 years deconstructing Faber's novel, in the end forming more a companion piece to the story rather than a slavish adaptation. Frankly, I think it's all for the better.

There are images that, once seen, will never leave you

From the astonishing opening sequence, in which Johansson's character appears to be 'birthed' for the first time, to the frightening interludes within the house to which the hitchhikers are lured, Under the Skin consistently brings new and chilling images to the table. 

Glazer's background in music videos for the likes of UNKLE and Radiohead becomes readily apparent here, the director defying his low budget to create a genuine sense of other-worldiness.

When said images are accompanied by Mica Levi's scratching, keening score, there's no denying that Under the Skin is more ambitious, and more successful in its ambitions, than practically any other British film in 2014. This, ultimately, is why the film deserves to triumph at the BAFTAs next year.