As if we needed more proof that Jamie Bell is one of the most consistently good actors around! After Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool and this year’s Rocketman, we probably don’t – but, just in case we do, he returns in Skin, a role that couldn’t be more far removed from Bernie Taupin if he tried. And yet it’s one that he embraces and inhabits with just as much commitment, if not more.
With a shaved head and covered with literally in-your-face tattoos, he plays Bryon Widner, a real-life – and now radically changed – white supremacist who, as a homeless teenager, was taken in by a group of neo-Nazis. He’s at the front of their confrontations with the local black community, spouting hate and never thinking twice about using a knife or worse on what he perceives to be the enemy. But all that hate disguises something deeper, that there’s a decent man underneath and it starts to emerge when he meets single mum Julie (Danielle Macdonald) and decides to leave his so-called “family” once and for all.
Not that we don’t know where the story is going from the very start: in the early frames we witness him going through the agony of having all his tattoos removed – face, hands, arms and elsewhere – an experience that director Guy Nattiv regularly re-visits. Those tatts are symbolic. Their removal is part of his deal with the FBI but they also represent his years of racism, the individual acts of violence he committed and, as they erode, so does that life, to be replaced by something wholly better.
But if that makes the film sound soft hearted, don’t be deceived. It’s harrowing, shocking at times, as we follow his transformation from the angry, foul mouthed beast to family man and his struggles to get there. The pull of the skinhead clan is powerful: his first attempt to break away puts him and Julie in such danger that he can only see one solution. It’s only over time that he sees there’s hope and the possibility of redemption – and that’s despite everything he’s done, the evidence of his actions and the on-going threats to his new life. It says much for the combined strength and subtlety of Bell’s performance that he conveys all Bryan’s inner conflict with such conviction, from the deeply bad to the good.
His isn’t the only strong piece of acting on show. Patti Cakes’ Macdonald (also impressive on Netflix’s Unbelievable)makes a seamless move away from comedy to play the love of his live, a young woman who’s been damaged by past relationships, making her fiercely protective of her children and their futures. But the real eye-opener is Vera Farmiga, as the mother figure of the skinhead gang. Miles away from her Lorraine Warren persona, her apparently friendly smiles disguise something more sinister, more ruthless and more ambiguous when it comes to her feelings for her adoptive “son.”
An easy watch it may not be, but Skin is a rewarding one, a film that doesn’t pull any punches about its subject and which, despite everything, is founded on the belief that, as Julie says in a telling moment, “people can change.” Its compulsive nature, however, is mainly down to Bell who delivers a riveting piece of acting, one that, like his Bernie Taupin, deserves some love and recognition this year. It’s about time …..
Freda Cooper |★★★ 1/2
Crime, Thriller, Drama | UK, 27 September (2019) | Lionsgate | Dir. Guy Nattiv | Jamie Bell, Danielle Macdonald, Vera Famiga, Bill Camp, Mike Colter, Mary Stuart Masterson.