Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 17 November 2019

Review: From ‘Billy Elliot’ to face tats, Jamie Bell’s stellar acting saves ‘Skin’

Bell pulls off a stand out performance in hard-hitting, true-life, white-power tale

Bryon Widner (Jamie Bell) is top dog in a gang of neo-Nazis, who eventually undergoes tattoo removal as part of his reinvention in 'Skin'. Courtesy Front Row Filmed Entertainment
Bryon Widner (Jamie Bell) is top dog in a gang of neo-Nazis, who eventually undergoes tattoo removal as part of his reinvention in 'Skin'. Courtesy Front Row Filmed Entertainment

Guy Nattiv’s debut US feature is not without its faults, but the performances are not among them.

Former child star Jamie Bell is the standout as the heavily tattooed neo-Nazi Bryon, struggling to break away from a life of hatred and violence, but Danielle Macdonald as his love interest and fellow would-be ex-Nazi, and Bill Camp and Vera Farmiga as the leaders and de facto “parents” of the skinhead gang Bryon has grown up in, put in more than a shift too. Bell rose to fame as a ballet-dancing Northern English teenager in Billy Elliot, but despite indie success with films like Filth, Nymphomaniac and Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, he’s so far failed to achieve the levels of commercial success hinted at by that breakout role.

He’s perhaps been a little unlucky along the way. His potential superhero breakout came in the appalling The Fantastic Four – Bell may well be pleased he was so heavily prostheticised and CGI’d as The Thing that it’s easy to forget he was even in it. His biggest commercial successes have been either in a voice role (The Adventures of Tintin) or a supporting role (King Kong). With Skin, Bell may have finally found the role that can straddle the divide between indie credibility and commercial success.

The true-life film could hardly be more topical. Bryon Widner (Bell) escaped his abusive parents as a teenager and was taken in by Fred Krager (Camp), aka Hammer, an egotistical white supremacist and the leader of the Vinlanders, a Norse-­mythology-obsessed neo-Nazi gang made up largely of groomed youngsters like Bryon. The hate-filled brood are raised and educated in violence and racism by Krager and his wife (Farmiga), who insists all her “boys” call her “ma”. Nattiv barely gives us time to settle down before Bryon, the gang’s top dog, and the boys are shockingly mutilating a young, black civil rights marcher in an alleyway during a protest, but then we learn that this is in fact a flashback.

Bryon Widner (Jamie Bell) is top dog in a gang of neo-Nazis, who eventually undergoes tattoo removal as part of his reinvention in 'Skin'. Courtesy Front Row Filmed Entertainment
Bryon Widner (Jamie Bell) is top dog in a gang of neo-Nazis, who eventually undergoes tattoo removal as part of his reinvention in 'Skin'. Courtesy Front Row Filmed Entertainment

Present-day Bryon is in a hospital undergoing extensive tattoo removal to help him blend back into society, not to mention to avoid sticking out like a sore, and heavily tattooed, thumb to the neo-Nazis he has been giving evidence against. As Bryon reminisces from his hospital bed we learn that he’s actually a sensitive soul – a talented artist and tattooist who was co-opted to provide the various skulls, daggers and swastikas that adorn the faces and bodies of himself and his fellow gang members.

We first see the signs of him renouncing violence, albeit rather violently, when he steps in to protect his soon-to-be-girlfriend Julie’s young daughters from a rowdy skinhead who doesn’t appreciate their musical talents. Julie, it should be noted, is something of a fellow traveller in the white power movement. She doesn’t really subscribe to the beliefs, but she tags along to earn extra money through her blonde-haired, blue-eyed pop-trio offspring who perform white-power ballads at rallies and events.

In this Monday, Aug. 1, 2011 photo, Bryon Widner hugs his 4-year-old son, Tyrson, at their home as his wife Julie watches. After getting married in 2006, the couple, former pillars of the white power movement (she as a member of the National Alliance, he a founder of the Vinlanders gang of skinheads) had worked hard to put their racist past behind them. They had settled down and had a baby; her younger children had embraced him as a father. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
A 2011 image of Bryon Widner, the film's inspiration, with his son, Tyrson. AP

In between returns to Bryon’s hospital bed, where he has a dozen-plus operations to remove his extensive Nazi tattoos over a two-year period, we see in flashback how Bryon fell in love with Julie. And then how he turned further against his former masters when he recognises himself in a vulnerable young teenage runaway who is brought into the fold. We then follow him trying, with limited success to leave the gang behind on his own accord – an idea the gang are not pleased with. We then, ultimately, watch him transform into a state witness as a means of escaping his past. The big problem with this flashback narrative technique is that, because we don’t actually meet Bryon until the point at which he’s almost ready to turn his back on the Vinlanders, we don’t ever fully understand the journey that brought him to them in the first place, nor the journey that took him from golden boy of the gang to doubter and ultimately traitor.

Nattiv also never really looks into the driving motivations or beliefs of the Vinlanders. Their application of white supremacy seems to consist largely of extended bouts of drinking interspersed with random violence, which may well be an accurate reflection of skinhead groups, but we might expect a little more of a glimpse into their supposed ideological motivations. The result is that the bulk of the supporting cast come across as decorative and generic. That feeling is furthered by the fact that Nattiv takes liberties with real life events – there’s no evidence that the Vinlanders burnt to death a squat full of illegal immigrants, for example. Nonetheless, this is largely forgivable as the film is really the story of Bryon’s, and to a lesser extent, Julie’s personal journey, and Bell and Macdonald tell it brilliantly.

Given the topicality and Bell’s performance, we perhaps needn’t be surprised if this film gets at least one Oscars nod to add to Nattiv’s Best Short award this year.

Skin is in cinemas across the UAE from Thursday, July 25

Updated: July 24, 2019 07:36 PM

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