Out of this world: Scarlett Johannson at the premier of Under the Skin at the Venice Film Festival 2013. (Photo: Getty)
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Alien landscape: Under the Skin by Jonathan Glazer

Scarlett Johansson stars as the otherworldly, predatory protagonist in this unsettling sci-fi thriller.

Under the Skin (15)
Jonathan Glazer

The British director Jonathan Glazer has made only three films in 14 years but when they’re this good, you don’t mind waiting. Unexpected visitors are at the heart of each. His 2000 debut, Sexy Beast, starred Ray Winstone as an ex-gangster living high on the hog (and looking like one) on the Costa del Smug, until an old associate, barking in both senses of the word, disrupts the calm forever. The interloper in Glazer’s second film, Birth, is a ten-year-old boy who walks into the life of a widow (Nicole Kidman), claiming to be the reincarnation of her late husband. Both times, the visitor was on the margins of the movie, bringing anarchy to its still centre, but in Under the Skin, that figure provides our sole point of view. Whether the nameless protagonist, played by Scarlett Johansson, is from another world or dimension is left ambiguous (it was not in the Michel Faber novel on which the script is based). She regards the human race through curious, dispassionate eyes. Soon we are doing likewise.

With the main character established in the abstract prologue as an alien presence, everything that follows assumes a strangeness that never has to be insisted on. Whether shopping for clothes, applying a slash of lipstick or riding a bus, whatever she does becomes effortlessly peculiar. There is another layer of oddness in seeing Scarlett Johansson driving a transit van around Glasgow. Why Glasgow? Well, you know how it is. You have your heart set on a villa in Kastellorizo and you find yourself staying above a Burger King in Kos. Why should things work out any differently for an alien intelligence?

Her cover story for the hitchhikers she picks up is that she is transporting some furniture for her aunt, but this is manifestly not the story of an extraterrestrial driving a tallboy to East Kilbride. Her objective is to collect men. She entices her prey back to her squat where she saunters ahead of him, disrobing as she goes. He follows her lead, shedding his clothes to the seductive sound of a snake-charmer’s lament, until he sinks silently into the molasses-like floor. Once he has been submerged, she strolls back over the surface and collects the discarded garments like a bored parent tidying up after a child. These scenes have a serene plainness, as if they were a natural exchange on the intergalactic food-chain. The annihilation is terrifying, without the alien seeming culpable or even cruel.

A pivotal encounter in which she picks up a facially disfigured man (Adam Pearson) twists that dynamic in a sophisticated fashion. In a conventional film, he would be the monster, she the victim. Knowing that he is her quarry, we fear instead for him. But her acceptance of his appearance complicates the scene further. Both alien and monster are rendered as human, with any fear set aside. It’s at such moments that the film reveals itself to be an anthropological study – a controlled celebration of human life masquerading as a science-fiction thriller.

In the second half, the alien goes rogue; the action switches from nightclubs and shopping centres to the mist-tangled Highlands. She has sex. She eats gateau. Most shockingly, she begins to enjoy the music of Deacon Blue.

The catalyst might be the moment when she studies her reflection in a mirror but in a film this oblique it’s anyone’s guess. If later parts of Under the Skin feel less daring, perhaps it is because it conforms to a familiar shape: the fish-out-of-water story in which an exotic creature grapples with our oddball ways. What keeps the tone steady is Glazer’s single-minded direction and Johansson’s subtle performance (some of which involves her improvising with Glaswegians who have no idea they are being filmed). In Birth, Kidman was called on to transmit a cataclysmic change of heart in one wordless close-up. Johansson’s task is to do the opposite: to convey meaning through blankness. I’m not sure how she does it, any more than I can say how Mica Levi’s electronic score evolves from the shrill to the aggressively moving without any apparent shift in texture. But Under the Skin gets under the skin. It is an experience that has as much to do with hypnosis as with cinema.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 12 March 2014 issue of the New Statesman, 4 years of austerity

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Edinburgh in the time of Harry Potter - growing up in a city that became famous for a book

At first, JK Rowling was considered a local author done good, rather than fiction’s future megastar. 

In an Edinburgh playground, circa 1998, I found myself excluded from one of the world’s first Harry Potter cliques. My best friend Sophie had a copy of a book with a title which seemed indecipherable to me, but she insisted it was so good she couldn’t possibly let me read it. Instead, she and the other owner of a book huddled together in corners of our concrete, high-walled playground. I was not invited.

Exclusion worked. Somehow I procured a copy of this book, rather sceptically read the praise on the cover, and spent the next day avoiding all company in order to finish it. After my initiation into the small-but-growing clique, I read the second book, still in hardback.

Edinburgh at that time was something of a backwater. Although it still had the same atmospheric skyline, with the castle dominating the city, the Scottish Parliament was yet to open, and the Scottish banks were still hatching their global domination plans. The most famous author of the moment was Irvine Welsh, whose book Trainspotting chronicled a heroin epidemic.

In this city, JK Rowling was still considered to be a local author done good, rather than fiction’s future megastar. She gave talks in the Edinburgh Book Festival, a string of tents in the posh West End Charlotte Square. By the time I saw her (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, hardback edition, 1999), she had graduated from the tepee to the big tent reserved for authors like Jacqueline Wilson and Michael Rosen. At the end we queued up for the book signing, and she told me she liked my purple dungarees.

At that time, there were no films, and what the characters should look and sound like was a constant playground debate. Another member of the Harry Potter clique I spoke to, Sally*, remembers how excited she was that “she did the same voice for Hagrid that my mum did when she was reading it to me”.

About the same time, a rumour spread around school so incredible it took a while to establish it was true. JK Rowling was moving to the street where some of our Harry Potter clique lived. We started taking detours for the privilege of scurrying past the grand Victorian house on the corner, with its mail box and security keypad. The mail box in particular became a focus of our imagination. Sophie and I laboured away on a Harry Potter board game which – we fervently believed – would one day be ready to post.

Gradually, though, it was not just ten-year-olds peeping through the gate. The adults had read Harry Potter by now. Journalists were caught raking through the bins.

Sally recalls the change. “It was exciting [after she first moved in], but as it was just after the first book it wasn’t as much of a big deal as it soon became,” she recalls. “Then it just felt a little bizarre that people would go on tours to try and get a glimpse of her house.

“It just felt like an ordinary area of town with ordinary people and it made me realise the price that comes with fame.”

Edinburgh, too, began to change. As teenagers (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, 2003) we liked to gather at the Elephant House cafe, on the bohemian George IV Bridge. We knew it was one of the cafes JK Rowling had written in, but we also liked its round wooden tables, and its bagels, and the fact you got one of the hundreds of miniature elephants that decorated the café if your bagel was late. It became harder and harder to get a seat.

We scoffed at the tourists. Still, we were proud that Harry Potter had put our city on the map. “As I grew older, it was fun to think of her writing the books in local cafes and just being an ordinary person living in Edinburgh with a great imagination,” Sally says. As for me, it was my trump card during long summers spent with bored Canadian teenagers, who had not heard and did not care about anything else relating to my teenage life in Scotland.

The last in the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, was published in July 2007, a month after I left high school. Not long after that, I left Edinburgh as well. The financial crash the following year stunned the city, and exiled graduates like me. I fell out the habit of reading fiction for fun. JK Rowling moved to a house on the outskirts of Edinburgh, ringed by 50 foot hedges. The Scottish independence referendum divided my friends and family. On Twitter, Rowling, firmly pro-union, was a target for cybernats.

Then, two years ago, I discovered there is another Harry Potter city – Porto. As in Edinburgh, medieval passageways wind past stacked old houses, and the sea is never far away. JK Rowling lived here between 1991 and 1993, during her short-lived marriage, and drafted the first three chapters of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. In the university district, students wear black, ragged gowns, and the fantastical wooden carvings of the Livraria Lello bookshop is tipped to be the inspiration for some of the aesthetic Rowling applies to the books.

I don’t know whether it did or not. But it made me realise that no city can possess an author, and not only because she could afford to any part of the globe at whim. Standing in the bookshop and watching the students drift by, I could imagine myself in some corner of the Harry Potter world. And simultaneously, perhaps, some tourists queueing for a table at the Elephant House were doing the same.

*Name has been changed

Now read the other articles included in the New Statesman’s Harry Potter Week.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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