Madagascar Skin Review

Madagascar Skin was Chris Newby’s second feature, a little seen oddity made on a low budget and co-financed by the British Film Institute and Channel Four. Yet rather than this being another effort in which the budget works against the rest of the enterprise, Newby used it in his favour. He creates an askew piece of dream reality in which one of its lead characters, played by John Hannah, has a giant birthmark covering the left side of his face, whilst the first time we meet the other, played by Bernard Hill, he’s hidden beneath a bucket.

Though elusive we do know some facts about these two people: Hannah is gay, yet has little, in fact no success cruising the clubs; heavily tattooed Hill appears to be on the run from gangsters. The pair encounter each other in some unnamed coastal region and set in action a two-hander which is equal parts Samuel Beckett, Andrew Kötting and Roman Polanski’s Cul-de-Sac. And yet whilst relatively straight-forward (linear narrative and all that), Madagascar Skin does exude an experimental flavour.

Newby’s great talent is in creating the fantastical out of the banal. Our characters may not get up to much in the strictest sense of the word, yet in muddling their motives, taking us on frequent oddball excursions and gently tilting the balance between comedy and drama, he is able to utterly command our attention. Indeed, it is these elements which provide the film with its energy as they trigger little tensions (increasingly sexual in narrative terms) and create new mysteries.

What’s particularly pleasing is Newby’s control both behind the camera and on the page (he serves as both writer and director). Madagascar Skin doesn’t feel like a writer’s film, nor does it seem especially over-directed. For almost the entirety of its first quarter the film doesn’t contain a single word of dialogue, but still manages to draw us in. And when the words to begin to flow, Newby demonstrates a clear skill for the bon mot, none of which I’ll quote here as they no doubt feel far more at home coming from Bernard Hill’s mouth than they do lumbered up on a screen.

Likewise the cinematic qualities show a consummate skill as well as a keen sense of humour. Oddly, Madagascar Skin is punctuated throughout by swipes in the manner of George Lucas or Akira Kurosawa. It’s not entirely sure why they’ve been deployed, yet their presence does raise a smile (after all, we’re not dealing with a piece of escapist action here, even if that’s what are leads are after). Indeed, such an effect would appear to Newby’s intent for his camera placement prompts a similar response. Using almost solely close-ups and/or medium close-ups, he continually teases us by not showing all that we would expect. Of course, this only enhances the mysteries, but also demonstrates a clear sense of fun which proves infectious.

In fact, though it has settled into obscurity now, Madagascar Skin was allowed the chance to show off such cinematic qualities on the big screen for a limited run in the mid-nineties. Of course, this didn’t gain the film a huge audience and neither is it likely to ever gain one, but then it does deserve to be much better known. Indeed, much like his feature debut, 1993’s Anchoress, it reveals Newby to be another of British cinema’s hidden talents.

The Disc

Disappointingly, Madagascar Skin comes to DVD in non-anamorphic form. And the disappointment is compounded by the fact that this is an otherwise superb transfer. We get the film in its original aspect ratio, there is absolutely no damage whatsoever, whilst the clarity and strength of the colours are exactly what should be expected. Likewise the soundtrack – here in its original Dolby Stereo form – remains crisp and clear throughout. As for extras, we are sadly lumbered with a photo gallery, one which appears to consist of screen grabs rather than genuine production stills, and brief bios for Hannah, Hill and Newby.

8 out of 10
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Last updated: 19/04/2018 07:53:47

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