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UNDER THE SKIN

Region 2 UK (PAL) Edition (BFI)   vs

Region 0 USA (NTSC) Arrow Home Entertainment

Director Carine Adler

Featuring:  Samantha Morton, Claire Rushbrook, Rita Tushingham

THE FILM

Samantha Morton is an extraordinarily talented actress, who seems to have found a niche playing fragile innocents.

Her career began conventionally enough, with supporting roles in unremarkable British TV dramas like Boon and Peak Practice, but she quickly turned to darker, considerably more challenging material. Her 1991 appearance in the Cracker story The Big Crunch, as a child kidnapped, drugged and abused by the leader of a religious cult, seems to have marked a turning point. From there it was a short step to a more substantial role, as a drug-addicted teenage runaway in Granada's Band of Gold, a series about a group of women forced into prostitution. Two years later, with the title role in Robert Young's LWT adaptation of Jane Eyre headlining her resume, Morton took on her first leading film role, in Carine Adler's remarkable film Under The Skin.

Under The Skin is about a young woman, Iris (Morton), who is struggling to make a life for herself. She's completely devastated when her mother (Tushingham) dies, and her world starts to disintegrate. She loses her job, alienates her sister (Secrets and Lies' Rushbrook), and drifts into a series of self-destructive, increasingly-abusive casual relationships.

Morton's made several films where she's played similarly-sympathetic roles, most notably her Oscar-nominated role as the mute partner of Sean Penn's banjo impresario in Woody Allen's Sweet and Lowdown. Her role as the cocooned 'pre-cog' Agatha in Spielberg's Minority Report, is an even more extreme example.

Under The Skin is in a different league. The film is coruscating, and makes for uncomfortable viewing. Iris is a tragic character, in a situation that's all-too believable. It's little wonder that the film was such a hit on the festival circuit, winning the Michael Powell Award at the Edinburgh Film Festival, and the Critic's Prize at the Toronto International Film Festival.

THE DVDS

Under The Skin was originally released in the US in early 2002, by Arrow Home Entertainment. It's a region-free disc, presented in 1.66:1 non-anamorphic format, with Dolby 2.0 audio (at 192kbps).

The UK disc, from the BFI, is also in 1.66:1 non-anamorphic format, but it has Dolby 5.0 audio (at 448kbps). It's coded for Region 2 playback only.

The UK disc has a marginally-improved transfer, with truer black levels, and slightly better detail. The US disc was standards-converted from a PAL master. The virtually-identical running time of the two discs is the first clue. The interpolation errors (blending two frames together) on almost every frame of the US disc proves it. This is a fundamental flaw, so it's obvious that the UK disc is the one to go for.

Framing on the two discs is virtually identical, with a sliver more picture information at the bottom and left hand edge of the UK disc.

Although superior to the US version, the image on the UK disc is far from perfect. It has a gritty look which, given the film's fly-on-the-wall documentary style, was probably intentional. It's likely that the film was shot on 16mm, which would limit the quality of the DVD transfer. A lot of the film was shot in low-light conditions, and it's often a struggle to see what's going on. Many scenes are lit by strong coloured lighting, and the disc copes well with the intense colours.

Both discs exhibit signs of underlying analogue video noise.

Neither version displays any significant encoding problems. The UK version is on a dual-layer disc, and takes advantage of the increased space to offer a higher average bit-rate (7.59Mb/s against the single-layer US disc's 6.43Mb/s). Detail levels are better on the UK version, but this might as easily be attributed to the increased resolution of the PAL format as it would be to the UK disc's better bit-rate.

Comparing the two audio mixes (the 2.0 of the US disc, and the 5.0 of the UK version) proved to be interesting, if rather pointless. The 2.0 mix is sufficient, and the 5.0 mix isn't appreciably better. Dialogue that would normally be locked to the centre channel is directed to the side speakers, too, on both versions. The music has better separation, but resolves just as well in Pro-Logic mode from the US disc's 2.0 tracks as it does from the discreet tracks on the 5.0 UK disc.

A Dutch PAL version - apparently in 4:3 full-frame format - is also available, from Mk2

THE BONUS MATERIAL

Neither disc scores heavily here.

A director's commentary, perhaps also featuring Morton, would have been a significant bonus, and one that only the resources and clout of the BFI might have been able to deliver. Sadly Adler, whose directing career seems to floundered after making Under The Skin, is not on hand to comment on her film.

The UK disc features something almost as worthwhile, however: Adler's 1994 short film Fever (18m), which features the late Katrin Cartlidge. The film is an embryonic version of Under The Skin, featuring Cartlidge in the Morton role. It also features The Fast Show's Mark Williams, in a small cameo role.

Fever, which, like Under The Skin, was made by the BFI in association with Channel 4 Television, is presented in 4:3 format, and looks like it's come from the original videotape transfer. It was probably shot on 16mm. There's a lot of grain and shadow detail is lacking in scenes that aren't well-lit, but it's generally serviceable.

The US disc has a gallery of alternate poster designs (ten of them), and a galley of photo's (seven of them). The posters are all in one-sheet format. One or two of them seem to be trying to pitch the film as some sort of sex comedy.

Both discs feature a theatrical trailer, but they're different. The US trailer relies heavily on its a female narrator, and ends with quotes from various critics. The UK version is driven by dialogue from the film, and doesn't spoon-feed its message like the American version. The US trailer is in poor shape. The UK one is relatively sharp and clean. 

The UK disc comes with sleeve notes written by Pam Cook, adapted from a review in the December 1997 issue of Sight and Sound.

SUMMARY

The UK disc is the obvious choice. It has a better transfer, and the considerable bonus of Adler's short film, Fever. Dedicated fans of the film - if, indeed, there are any - will want to upgrade from the US disc: it's not a huge improvement, but added benefit of Fever will sweeten the pill.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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