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Tag: United Kingdom

Under the Skin (2013)

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Siren Song

One doesn’t know if it took Jonathan Glazer nine months to complete Birth, his previous movie, but it is a pity that it took him nine years to finally release Under the Skin. The man is truly gifted. The complete antithesis of Independence Day and its bombastic clones, the movie treats alien invasion as the intimate drama of its unnamed heroin, splendidly interpreted by Scarlett Johanson, who seems to be unable to be bad in anything for quite some time now.

She drives a white van in concentric circles around Glasgow, stopping to ask directions to lonely men she lures into empty houses with the promise of sex. She is very good at small talk and they are unable to refuse her siren song and looks. As tedious and repetitive her routine is, following her is all but boring. She’s often filmed behind the wheel with the empty passenger seat at her side, her concentration never breaking while she scans the street in search for her next target. As was the case with the prolonged close up of Nicole Kidman’s face listening to concert music in Birth, Johanson expresses an impressive range of micro-emotions without being emoting. She’s literally hypnotic.

Once in the empty house, she progressively disrobes in a seemingly infinite dark space and the men follow her before disappearing in the most intriguing way. Under the Skin uses CGI in the cleverest way possible, not adding non-existing sets but subtracting any set, a smart choice for both an alien creature lost in space and her human preys. Three such scenes are shown in the movie, progressively revealing what is the trade she’s plying, the object of her quest, the function she fills. And that function is ghoulish.

A mysterious accomplice on a motorcycle helps her disposing of evidence, most strikingly in a scene requiring extraordinary guts to put onscreen as it involves a young man disfigured by neurofibromatosis, the illness that affected John Merrick (The Elephant Man). That encounter is treated with incredible flair, as shocking as it is delicate. The way the episode ends is devastating and the woman starts feeling the strangest thing: reluctance to fulfill her search-and-destroy mission. She meets a good Samaritan and experience a series of weird events, being repelled by chocolate cake, not getting TV comedy or seemingly discovering her own shoulder blades. A creeping sense of sadness unfolds, furtively balanced by funny moments, counterpoints to her own dissonant tune.The sudden revelation of her true nature is both brutal and minimal in its violence, but it carries a lingering echo, as disturbing as it is unforgettable.

Checking IMDB made one aware that Under the Skin‘s original score won an outstanding 20 awards across the globe. The music, based on venomous strings reminiscent of snake charming, impressively blends into the soundscape designed for the movie, alternatively emphasising parts of it while muffling others. It is also interesting to learn that Scarlett Johanson won a prize for Best Naked / Seduction scene awarded by a feminine critic jury. She is a gorgeous woman and seems unwilling to remain fully clothed for very long in spite of Scotland’s rigorous climate, but it says more about the gullibility of lonely men being offered a lift by an unknown woman than it plays bare breasts as exploitation. Aliens, see, have understood a thing or two about what it means to be a human male.

IMDB page

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Page Eight (2011)

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Stuff About England

A BBC2 movie with a dream casting, Page Eight is a quiet spy drama in the John Le Carré’s vein, extremely well written, elegantly directed and, not surprisingly, supremely well acted. It is best enjoyed for its deadpan dialogues, wryly delivered by some of the best British thespians around. A small gem with not an ounce of violence but filled with menace and danger.

Johnny Worricker (Bill Nighy, who can load a seemingly innocuous line like “I’ve got a question” with chilling tension), is an old school MI5 analyst reporting to his Cambridge friend Benedict Baron (Michael Gambon, great in an old chap role he could play in his sleep) with whom he “shares a wife”, Emma (Alice Krige, always gloriously venomous). She was pregnant with their daughter Julianne (Felicity Jones) when he left her for another woman and she married Baron. Julianne resents her father to have let her and her mother down and expresses her anger and resentment through troubled paintings, which Johnny, a fond art collector, does not appreciate. He lives a quiet, discreet life in an apartment which walls are covered with art, and listens to jazz. He doesn’t believe in the Special Relationship with USA.

Two events disrupt this routine in rapid fire. He meets his neighbour, Nancy (Rachael Weisz, a guarantee of quality in herself), daughter of a Syrian activist and whose brother has been killed by the Israeli while waving a white flag, and a possible set up. His boss dies after presenting out of the blue a report to the Home Secretary (Saskia Reeves, whose great first line is “Let’s start the bloody meeting!”). The report, from a secret American source, proves that USA have secret prison facilities abroad and its page eight establishes that the British Prime Minister (Ralph Fiennes, reptilian as ever) has knowledge of it.

The conundrum is the following: is the report wrong, in which case USA has left Great Britain in the dark, or is it true, in which case the PM has left his Home Secretary in the dark? Head of MI5 Jill Tankard (Judy Davies, not seen often enough) does not appreciate to be caught unbalanced and threatened Johnny to fire him if he does not return the top secret report he has in his possession. Will Johnny take a stance or yield to pressure? One won’t tell, but the way he navigates this tricky waters makes for some very good, if subdued, espionage.

The job of an analyst is to know who to trust. The legacy of Johnny’s friend and boss is “a matter of honour”. Faced with spin doctors and treacherous politicians, he remains “an all round decent person”, the trait we love in British people even though it largely remains a mystery, like most of Angliana. Asked why he changed his mind at some point, he eludes “Oh you know, wind, caprice…” A feast of understatement, Page Eight is an all round decent movie, well, more than decent, actually. No question.

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