Edinburgh Jamie Neish

Edinburgh 2019: Skin review

★★★★☆

Jamie Bell is phenomenal in Skin, Israeli-born director Guy Nattiv’s harrowing drama. It’s a performance that requires a certain level of depth and power – something that Bell tears into with astonishing ferocity.

The man Bell portrays is Bryon Widner, a real-life – now transformed – neo-Nazi who found himself taken in by a makeshift family of supremacists when all else was lost. In this state, he’s a beast, leading the charge of violent protests and spouting hateful speech toward anyone without his views.

There’s a heart deep down, however, that slowly starts to emerge when he meets single-mother Julie (Danielle Macdonald) whom he eventually ditches the supremacist Viking club to shack up with, her daughters taking a shine to his dog, Boss. As can be expected, this doesn’t sit well with Bryon’s adoptive family, who use threat and violence in an attempt to bring him back. We know where things are headed, as director Nattiv employs cutaways every now and then to Byron on a hospital bed, lasers shocking his skin to remove the profusion of tattoos that imprint every inch of his body, from top to toe.

Yet, this doesn’t detract from the intensity of the film as we, the audience, bear witness to the path toward that point. It’s on that path that the push-pull dynamic between a life of violence Byron knows through and through and one that offers hope, redemption and a real chance at a proper life. That dynamic is cleverly employed by Nattiv, and moulded by Bell’s performance; inner turmoil and pain expressed in a mere glance.

The performances of others, too, are terrific. Macdonald as Julie is more than a stereotype, her own life damaged by the past – something that she refuses to let happen again, for the sake of herself and her children. Vera Farmiga is also worth a mention as Ma, Byron’s mother figure. The question mark surrounding her true feelings linger throughout the film, though there’s no mistaking her ruthlessly deceptive nature.

It’s possible many will scoff at the quickness in which Byron turns. In reality, it took years, which is always tricky to capture on film without rushing through narrative or skipping ahead five, ten or even fifteen years. But that’s not taking away from the work Nattiv delivers. Skin is a powerful, harrowing and deeply disturbing drama that excels with Bell at its fore. His performance is the kind that comes along to rarely, and it would be unjust to see him unrecognised for the career-best work he offers up.

The full EIFF programme can be viewed at edfilmfest.org.uk.

Jamie Neish | @JamieNeish