Madagascar Skin, a two-character study from writer/director Chris Newby, is more boring than it is bad, although both terms apply. From beginning to end, a frustrating sense of inertia holds everything on-screen in a vice-like grip, making for an interminable, tedious ninety minutes. Along the way, there are breakthrough moments when Madagascar Skin shines, but these are distressingly rare. For most of this movie, I found myself fending off sleep.
Although Newby would like us to believe he has come up with an original plot, the core of his movie — two dissimilar, lonely men finding companionship with each other — is a basic motion picture staple. Sadly, perhaps the most unique thing Newby has accomplished in this case is to strip his two protagonists of much of their humanity. They are two-dimensional figures unsuccessfully struggling to escape from their stereotyped cocoons.
As the film begins, Harry (John Hannah), a painfully shy gay man, is at a gay bar, drinking a beer and staying in the shadows. When the lights come on, it’s apparent why he prefers the darkness — the entire left side of his face is covered with a port wine stain the shape of the island Madagascar. Hurt by the looks of repulsion cast in his direction, Harry flees not only the bar, but civilization in general, escaping to a remote section of the Welsh coast, where he intends to live out of his car. Fate has other plans, however, and, while he’s walking the beach, Harry comes upon the unconscious Flint (Bernard Hill), who is buried up to the neck in the sand. After a short period of indecision, Harry decides to rescue the older man. Soon, the two of them are squatting in a nearby, apparently-abandoned house that, conveniently, has electricity and running water.
There’s nothing compelling about either Harry or Flint, both of whom are sketchily-drawn and incomplete. One is intelligent and educated; the other is illiterate and obtuse. One is gay; the other is heterosexual. One is shy and withdrawn; the other is blustering and forthright. One eats beans with his hands; the other swallows insects and chews on glass. The only things they share are poverty and an almost-desperate need for human companionship. On those occasions when Madagascar Skin slices through its self-imposed barriers to develop a moment’s empathy with these characters, we are treated to a glimpse of the quiet power this film could have possessed. But there are too few of these moments, and much time is wasted on an arm’s-length view of individuals whose bizarre attributes make them unfathomable and contradictory, not special.
Throughout Madagascar Skin, Newby delights in shocking us with graphic, grotesque images. Ugliness is everywhere: dead squid and fish squashed by car tires, a severed penis, and worms feasting on a decaying body. Perhaps the most stomach-turning moment of all is when Flint opens his mouth and swallows a mouse whole, then chews on the rodent before sucking in the tail. I’m not squeamish — I sat through the scene in Clean, Shaven — but this caused me to wince.
Often, there’s a warped, dream-like quality to the way Newby presents the visuals, causing us to wonder whether the entire narrative is Harry’s nightmare. If it’s not, there’s no obvious reason why Madagascar Skin should be presented in such a pretentious, pseudo-arty manner unless the director is trying to demonstrate his “talent” as a film maker. This movie would have been better served if more energy had been invested in creating vital protagonists and telling a worthwhile story.
Although both Harry and Flint fail as characters, neither actor Bernard Hill nor John Hannah (Four Weddings and a Funeral) can be blamed. Both give solid, albeit wasted, performances, and I’m sure that several of the fleeting connections the audience makes with the pair is due entirely to good acting. It’s a grim prospect to contemplate what Madagascar Skin would have been without them. In fact, it’s not all that pleasant to consider what it is with them. This movie can get under your skin, but not in the way the film makers intended, and only if you stay awake.
(1996 James Berardinelli)