Skip to main content
BFI logo











Screenonline banner
Under the Skin (1997)


Main image of Under the Skin (1997)
DirectorCarine Adler
Production Companybfi Production Board
 Channel Four
 Strange Dog Productions
ProducerKate Ogborn
ScreenplayCarine Adler
Director of PhotographyBarry Ackroyd
MusicIlona Sekacz

Samantha Morton (Iris Kelley); Claire Rushbrook (Rose); Rita Tushingham (Mum); Stuart Townsend (Tom); Mark Womack (Frank)

Show full cast and credits

When their mother suddenly dies from a brain tumour, two sisters, Iris and Rose, are grief-stricken but it is Iris whose behaviour begins to go off the rails. She immerses herself in a sex binge and stretches her relationship with her sister to its limits.

Show full synopsis

While Under the Skin (d. Carine Adler, 1997) centers on a young woman's relation to her mother and sister and their mourning and loss, the film casts a broader net. The narrative journey is intensely shaped by the central character's quest for self-integration and love. The film does not end, like many feminist films, with the discovery of a rage that mobilises the female protagonist. Instead it begins with Iris's antagonism, and moves through the various expressions of rage that lead her from abjection to a discovery of her voice and to a mode of behavior that connects her to others.

The 'skin' of the film's title suggests that Iris's (Samantha Morton) struggle is with her body. Her sense of loss is literally written on her skin at the beginning of the film, as prefigured in the image of her writing on her abdomen with a black marker pen. Her route to self-discovery is expressed through masturbation, heterosexual excess, masochism and physical assaults on her sister and strangers. These actions are intimately related to her struggle to break the shackles of social convention learned through the body. Iris's exploration of sexuality allows her (and more broadly the film narrative) to entertain a world other than conventional expectations of conformity to marriage, and family. Iris's journey ends in her reconciliation with her pregnant sister, Rose (Claire Rushbrook), her planting the mother's ashes, then chucking her mother's empty urn into the water. Thus the film ends with images of birth - literally - and of rebirth and openness.

Under the Skin tackles a key feminist concern: the connections between language, voice, and femininity. Iris's insistence on talking to the men with whom she has sex, her belligerent conversations with Rose, and the many frustrating phone calls suggest her difficulty in finding a language to express her feelings about difference.

The success of the film is also due to Samantha Morton's acting and the intimate ways in which she was filmed. Moreover, the presence of Rita Tushingham, brief though it is, evokes memories of the films of the 1960s - e.g. A Taste of Honey (d. Tony Richardson, 1962) and The Girl with Green Eyes (d. Desmond Davis, 1963) and of Tushingham's portraits of off-beat femininity. Under the Skin is not merely an exercise in feminist theory: it is a journey into memory and an experiment in cinematic style.

Marcia Landy

*This film is available on BFI DVD.

Click titles to see or read more

Video Clips
1. Visiting mother (2:13)
2. Dressing up (4:12)
3. On the prowl (3:12)
4. Ex-boyfriend (2:01)
Original Posters
Production stills
Ackroyd, Barry (1954-)
Adler, Carine (1948-)
Morton, Samantha (1977-)
Tushingham, Rita (1942-)
Channel 4 and Film
Social Realism
The BFI Production Board: The Features
Women and Film