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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Man in the mirror-ball: Simon Armitage's The Unaccompanied

With this mature, engaging and empathetic work, the poet softens the pain of passing years. 

The Unaccompanied, by Simon Armitage
Faber & Faber, 76pp, £14.99

“The centuries crawl past,” Simon Armitage notes in his new collection, “none of them going your way”. After a decade of acclaimed travelogues, transgressive prose poetry, and above all translation, Armitage has combed those centuries to produce innovative versions of ancient and medieval texts: Pearl, The Death of King Arthur, Homer’s Odyssey, Virgil’s Georgics. In The Unaccompanied he returns, refreshed from his sojourn in the past and bringing the classics with him; in the book’s dystopian present, in “Poundland”, Odysseus meets the ghost of his drunken comrade Elpenor not in the Underworld, but “slumped and shrunken by the Seasonal Products display”, the poem’s pseudo-archaic English underscoring its ironic rewriting of Homer. Meanwhile, the protagonist of “Prometheus”, holed up in a post-industrial wasteland, sees his father retrieve not fire, but a Champion spark plug.

To lighten its nightmarish visions, The Unaccompanied offers the same beguiling playfulness that has characterised Armitage’s verse from his 1989 debut, Zoom!, to the “Merrie England” of Tyrannosaurus Rex versus The Corduroy Kid (2006). “Tiny”, for instance, reads like an old-school Ladybird Book (“Simon has taken his father, Peter,/to the town’s museum”) and “The Poet Hosts His Annual Office Christmas Party” makes a mischievous nod to Yeats. As ever, there are pinpoint references to popular culture; in “Gravity”, it is the “six-minute-plus/album version” of Fleetwood Mac’s “Sara” that plays on the stereo in the sixth-form common room. Yet Armitage’s concern for the socially excluded – the “skinny kid in jeans and trainers” from “The Ice Age” to whom the poet offers a spurned coat, “brother to brother” – burns unabated.

This collection articulates a new anger that is more personal, a lament for individual mortality, the sadness of time moving on too far and too fast. In “The Present”, the poet attempts to take an icicle home to his daughter:

a taste of the glacier, a sense of the world

being pinned in place by a
diamond-like cold

at each pole, but I open my hand

and there’s nothing to pass on, nothing to hold.

Armitage’s fluid poetics are pitch-perfect and his imagery remains incisive. The bare winter larch trees become “widowed princesses in moth-eaten furs”. In “Poor Old Soul” an elderly man sits, “hunched and skeletal under a pile of clothes,/a Saxon king unearthed in a ditch”. This is the measured poetry of late middle-age, in which only the promise of more loss fills the “white paper, clean pages”. In “Kitchen Window”, the poet’s mother taps the smeared glass before she falls away “behind net curtains” and then further “to deeper/darker reaches and would not surface”. “Emergency” (published in the NS in 2013) could almost be his audition for Grumpy Old Men. “What is it we do now?” he asks as he details the closed banks, and pubs where “tin-foil wraps/change hands under cover/of Loot magazine”. W G Hoskins’s gentle topological classic is referenced in “The Making of the English Landscape”, though a very different country is seen at dusk from a satellite:

like a shipwreck’s carcass raised on a
sea-crane’s hook,

nothing but keel, beams, spars, down to its bare bones.

In “Harmonium”, the poet’s father – who, in 1993’s Book of Matches, berated him for having his ear pierced – helps his son lug an unwanted organ from their local church and reminds him “that the next box I’ll shoulder through this nave/will bear the load of his own dead weight”.

Armitage’s poetic world is instantly recognisable, always inclusive. We know the faded ballrooms that turn into even sadder discos in “The Empire”. Or the clumsy children’s shoe fitter of “The Cinderella of Ferndale”, who leaves her own footprints of disappointment. As the poet stumbles on a farmers’ fancy-dress parade for a breast cancer charity in “Tractors”, the slight incident bleeds into the universal shock of diagnosis: “the musket-ball/or distant star/in your left breast”. Critics often cite Philip Larkin as an influence on his work, but Armitage’s highly tuned sense of such “mirror-ball” moments – small but refracting repeatedly across time and lives – is all his own. Thankfully, with this mature, engaging and empathetic work, he is back to record them for us, softening the pain of passing years. 

Josephine Balmer is a poet and classical translator. “Letting Go: Mourning Sonnets” will be published by Agenda Editions in July

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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