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by Jay Seaver

"More than just skin-deep."
4 stars

The laws of nature and the laws of man are almost entirely different beasts. The former are relatively few, and constant, but allow for great complexity and variety; they say what CAN happen. The latter multiply continually, but are seldom able to cope with every situation that appears; their attempts to say what CAN NOT be done can fly in the face of reality. "Skin" ably recounts an example of how the two can come into conflict, pointing out the absurdity and tragedy of it.

We briefly open in 1994, the day of South Africa's first elections open to all races. Sandra Liang (Sophie Okonedo), an ordinary-seeming black factory worker, is pulled aside to be interviewed, saying she is happy for the future of her country but the changes came too late for her. Why is her opinion in particular of interest? The film flashes back to 1965, and we see that Sandra (played by Ella Ramangwane as a child) is, despite her dark skin and nappy hair, the child of two white Afrikaaner shopkeepers, Abraham (Sam Neill) and Sannie (Alice Krige). This being smack in the middle of the apartheid period, she is persecuted and driven back home. Abraham, whose motto is "never give up", fights the system to get his daughter classified as white, but when she's grown and her parents are seeking suitors, Petrus Zwame (Tony Kgoroge), a black man, is the one who catches her fancy.

Skin is based upon a true story - it updates the audience on how the characters fared before the credits roll - which is ordinarily something I try not to consider one way or another, but does prove useful on a few points. If director Anthony Fabian and his three co-writers were inventing the story from whole cloth, we might question Sandra's paternity, forcing him to spend more than the seconds he does addressing it: Sannie says there was no-one else, so we all must accept it. Similarly, we dismiss the long odds on enough recessive genes getting together to create a Sandra from Abraham and Sannie; it's unlikely, but it only had to happen once.

There are moments when it doesn't seem completely unlikely, of course. Most of the time, the work of a film's make-up artists is only noted for fantastical creatures or aging, but what they do with Sam Neill - especially in the early going - is noteworthy. It's hard to tell whether he's meant to be well-bronzed from the African sun or whether, perhaps, he's got more African DNA than the average Afrikaaner. It adds a layer or two to Neill's already very good performance; where Neill plays Abraham as rigid and stubborn, almost deluded in how he tries to reconcile his acceptance of apartheid and his black daughter by insisting that she is white, we wonder at times if his fight is as much about himself as it is about Sandra.

The actresses playing Sandra are impressive as well. They're well-cast physically, in that it's easy to believe Ella Ramangwane could grow up to look like Sophie Okonedo, but they also do an excellent job of capturing Sandra's attitudes at different stages of life. Ramangwane is wide-eyed and innocent; she always comes across as a girl who believed what her parents told her because she had no reason not to, rather than someone too stupid to see what was right in front of her face. We understand that Sandra's parents must have kept her very sheltered up until the day that they dropped her off at boarding school without needing it spelled out. Okonedo, on the other hand, plays a Sandra who has far fewer illusions to cling to; her default expression is sad and worn-down. It's not a one-note performance by any means, though - the script doesn't paint Sandra as a helpless victim, and Okonedo does a fine job of, in some ways, making this woman with an extraordinary background into someone ordinary, with a personality of her own that isn't totally dependent on her unusual childhood. She can light up a room when something strikes her funny. Okonedo is also very believable playing Sandra at a fairly wide range of ages - from just out of her teens in 1973 to having children the same age in 1994.

The rest of the cast is good, as well. Alice Krige is warm and charming as Sannie, clearly somewhat ahead of her time - at least compared to her husband - but never feeling too much like a woman from a more progressive time and place. As much as we like her most of the time, it's in the scenes where Sannie is clearly less than perfect that she shines the most. Similarly, it's very easy to be charmed by Tony Kgoroge's Petrus, enough so that his last scene or two is still shocking, even though we've seen something unpleasant build up in him. It's somewhat remarkable how quickly Kgoroge's performance turns while still being utterly believable.

But, why wouldn't it be believable? Apartheid (like similar institutions and beliefs) brought out the worst in everyone, black and white, whether we're talking about the characters' scapegoating or the circular logic used to define who belongs in which class. Director Fabian doesn't sugar-coat this, but also doesn't spend too much time pointedly condemning it with the benefit of hindsight. We see how <I>apartheid</I> affected people's everyday lives, not the people committed to the fight against it. He and the writers do allow the story to wander on occasion; even if Sandra's life was genuinely filled with this sort of upheaval, some things seem forced when made into a movie (for instance, one sequence has Sandra desperate to get her birth certificate to jump through some bureaucratic hoops; soon after, that she managed fine without is mentioned in an off-hand way).

So the movie is a little awkward at times, but that is, in some ways, only proper: It chronicles a situation where society's attempt to enforce rules that don't necessarily conform to nature's, and in those situations, nature tends to be right (it can't help but be otherwise), though man will fight tooth and nail.

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originally posted: 01/22/10 05:12:04
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2008 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2008 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2009 Seattle International Film Festival For more in the 2009 Seattle International Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

9/15/08 Lenore Francois A touching true story that demonstrates the complexity of race & absurdity of apartheid. 4 stars
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  30-Oct-2009 (PG-13)
  DVD: 01-Feb-2011

  24-Jul-2009 (12A)


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