The Reflecting SkinDirector: Philip Ridley
Screenplay: Philip Ridley
Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Lindsay Duncan, Jeremy Cooper
Country: UK/Canada
Running Time: 96 min
Year: 1990
BBFC Certificate: 15

Releases like these are what make me sad to see the ‘convenience food’ streaming model taking over the home entertainment market. If you’ve already glanced at my fairly low rating for this film, please ignore it for a second, because although I wasn’t a big fan of The Reflecting Skin, the story of its new re-release makes me very happy.

The film was originally released in 1990 and had a decent run on the festival circuit, premiering at Cannes. However, it struggled to find distribution, particularly on home video and vanished without a trace. 25 years later and interest in the film online has eventually prompted it to be properly remastered ready to be screened at a couple of festivals and get released here in the UK in a well compiled special edition steelbook Blu-Ray. Maybe I’m just being a grumpy old man who can’t give up his VHS and DVD collection, but I get the feeling that the ‘everything I want, whenever I want’ form of home entertainment these days means less care is going to be made to resurrect lost gems or treat classics with the respect they deserve. Some have predicted that the Blu-Ray format might live on purely through boutique labels releasing cult classics like these and special editions of old favourites. One can only hope, but I do worry about the future of film preservation.

Anyway, (possibly unfounded) rant aside. What did I think about Philip Ridley’s The Reflecting Skin now that it’s finally been brought into our homes, looking and sounding like it originally intended? Well, I was torn and frustrated to be honest.

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The film is set in the 1950’s in an incredibly remote and cut-off community in rural Idaho. A young boy, Seth Dove (Jeremy Cooper), lives in a gas station with his unhinged, abusive mother (Sheila Moore) and broken shell of a father (Duncan Fraser). To make matters worse, the town’s children are being molested and murdered one by one. Seth’s father is suspected due to a previous incident, prompting him to kill himself. The film chart’s Seth’s difficulties in coming to terms with these tragedies and others that follow, sometimes spurred on by his actions. His way of dealing with all the madness around him is to retreat into a fantasy world where he believes his grieving neighbour Dolphin Blue (Lindsay Duncan) is a vampire who wants to suck the life out of the only person he admires in the world, his brother Cameron (Viggo Mortensen) who has just returned from service in the Pacific.

As I mentioned earlier, I was very torn about The Reflecting Skin. I’ll start with the positives as there is a lot to admire about the film. The most striking aspect is its cinematography. Dick Pope, who did wonderful work recently on Mr. Turner, was the DOP. He and Ridley craft a beautiful looking film, making the most of the bright sunshine and golden fields of the area to contrast the darkness of the story.

Equally as powerful is the film’s score. Nick Bicât provides a wonderfully emotive soundtrack that is lushly orchestrated. Looking him up on IMDB, I’m surprised he hasn’t worked on higher profile films, instead composing largely for British TV. If this score is anything to go by, he’s a great talent that should be better known. It’s a shame that this soundtrack doesn’t seem to be available to buy either as I’d be all over it.

The look and sound of the film combine to create an impressive mood and atmosphere, which goes a fairly long way in carrying you along the fairly bleak journey. I like the general story and ideas behind the film too. It’s quite unique and unusual, which is always a plus point for me. However, two key things totally derail everything. Performance and (to a lesser extent) dialogue.

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The performances in the film are dialled up to ridiculous levels, which may or may not be intentional, but totally ruined the film for me. It comes across as a showcase in amateur dramatics and I found myself actually laughing at the screen during a couple of the hamiest moments. The final sequence in particular had the potential to be utterly devastating, but instead the primal scream closing shot comes across like an alternate take of the Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader “noooooo!!!” at the end of Revenge of the Sith. Viggo Mortensen is pretty good to be fair, but he’s a little too softly spoken, so I found myself reaching for the remote to crank up the volume whenever he was on screen.

The writing doesn’t help fix the performances flaws. Although I admire the script’s story and structure, the dialogue is often horribly clunky. Largely it’s just too on-the-nose (“who’s killing the children” one woman wails) or just awkwardly unnatural. An example of the latter that bothered me was where Seth describes two items at various points in the film as “wonderful”. This might be nitpicking, but would an 8-year old kid really describe a toad and a shell as “wonderful”? It just sounded awkward coming from his mouth.

There’s a general lack of subtlety too. Some of the symbolism is student level blatant – crosses, stigmata-like injuries and an over-used American flag for instance. Plus, other blunt details annoy, like the cover of the vampire book Seth reads having an illustration of a vampire looking exactly like Dolphin, even down to the outfit she wears and location she’s standing in.

So, as impressive as certain aspects of the film are, it all falls in on itself due to some core problems. It’s such a shame, as I could see such promise in the content and talent involved. If you can accept the overblown aspects you might like it more than I did, but I really struggled.

The Reflecting Skin is out on 30th November in a special edition steelbook Blu-Ray in the UK, released by Soda Pictures. Newly restored in a director-approved high-definition transfer, the film looks and sounds great. The image is a tad soft perhaps, but it’s very clean and the colours look gorgeous.

There are a host of special features too. There’s a feature length audio commentary with the writer/director as well as an isolated score track assembled from original recordings, including previously unreleased extended and unused cues. I haven’t listened to these yet, but I plan to give the commentary a listen soon. There are also two all-new retrospective documentaries, Angels & Atom Bombs (44 mins) and Dreaming Darkly (15 mins), including new and exclusive interviews with Nick Bicat, Viggo Mortensen, Dick Pope and Philip Ridley. These are fairly decent although there’s a little too much back slapping going on at times and I didn’t agree with Ridley’s claims that you needed to ‘be prepared’ for the film to truly ‘get it’.

If those features weren’t enough, you also get Philip Ridley’s short films Visiting Mr Beak (1987, 21 mins) and The Universe Of Dermot Finn (1988, 11 mins), with optional director introductions. The usual trailers and galleries top off this surprisingly expansive set for what is a relatively obscure film which has been difficult to track down for years. So despite my issues with the film, I have to say good job, Soda Pictures!

The Reflecting Skin
2.5Overall Score
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Editor of films and videos as well as of this site. On top of his passion for film, he also has a great love for music and his family.

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