When I first read Michael Faber’s excellent novel Under the Skin, I made a beeline for what was then his newest release, The Crimson Petal and the White. The two couldn’t have been much more different but both had the hallmarks of a great writer. Whilst reading the former I often wondered what a great film it’d make. Fourteen years on that is a reality, thanks to a Scarlett Johansson flick. But is it another case of the novel being infinitely better than the big-screen attempt?
The book was a tense and teasing affair in which the female protagonist was slowly revealed page-by-page as her motives and emotions started to unravel. The big reveal took a fairly long time to come around, and by then Faber had you in his hands as he went toward the dark finale. I’m glad to report the movie manages to encapsulate the sense of tension equally well; however, it aims for a different path. From the start it’s obvious that Johansson’s character is alien to this world. Everything that unfolds does so with the feel of a cagey, dark sci-fi. The pace that it approaches the subject matter will divide opinion, much like the movie itself has.
One thing for sure is how good Scarlett Johansson portrays so much, using so little in the way of scripted dialogue. In the novel we had her character’s perspective fed to us along with a back-story that served as a way to offer empathy. Here we rely purely on the actress’s ability to convey all the unspoken, but highly important, character developments. Thankfully she is more than up to the task, displaying a master class that will sadly go unnoticed.
The story does take a different turn than the book, the fact it will is evident early on, but this only serves to enhance the mood and the lead’s performance. Before it has the chance to lag under its own tension we are served a chilling end, not the sort Faber gave us but by the final scenes this had become very much its own beast. So not a case of the book being better, just different. Quite fitting when both the novel and movie challenge us to explore differences and perceptions.