A moving true story with superb performances.

The most remarkable elements of the true story of Sandra Laing survive intact, despite a rather unremarkable bigscreen retelling of her life as an innocent struggling to survive against the abhorrent policy of apartheid. Director Anthony Fabian’s workmanlike approach to three decades in the life of one of South Africa’s most iconic figures relies upon superb central performances and the inherent drama of the protagonist’s day-to-day life to hold viewer interest.

Sandra Laing was a genetic anomaly – a honey-skinned 'dark’ child born to Afrikan parents in a 1950’s South Africa cruelly divided by the social scourge that was apartheid. Despite being raised as an Afrikan and categorised by officialdom as white, Sandra was bullied by both students and teachers when she entered an all-white boarding school, ensuring her first experience outside the loving homelife her family provided was a shocking one. (One scene, in which the young girl is caned before her classmates by a bigoted teacher, is gruelling to watch).

As she grew from a confused but free-spirited child into a shy woman, Sandra became conflicted by the cards her genetics had dealt her. She clashed with her proud father, Abraham (Sam Neill); became estranged from her loving mother, Sannie (Alice Krige); and sought out a life amongst the dark-skinned population, only to be betrayed by a husband (Tony Kgorge) struggling with his own demons.

Central to the film’s moving narrative is the strong sense of self that each performer brings to their role. As the teenage Sandra, Ella Ramangwane is a radiant, beautifully-empathetic actress who makes such an impact in her short screen time, the film takes some while to recover once her work is done; as Sandra’s father Abraham, Sam Neill delivers easily the best of his 'decent-but-conflicted father’ portrayals (see also Irresistible, 2006; Bicentennial Man, 1999; The Horse Whisperer, 1998; The Piano, 1993; Evil Angels, 1988); and Alice Krige, whose tendency to overreach dramatically has ensured she has never quite delivered on the promise shown in her film debut, Chariots of Fire (1981), is terrific as Sannie, a woman desperate for a relationship with her daughter but is bound by social and marital constraints. (Her steadfast defiance of Abraham’s deathbed wishes will have audiences cheering...on the inside).

Most crucial to the film’s authenticity is the striking Sophie Okonedo, who ages as Sandra from her shy and awkward late teens to her fiercely independent middle age. Okonedo inhabits Sophie not as a Rosa Parks-like symbol of her people’s struggle, but moreso as a woman of colourless determination – a confused young person discovering the nature of her true self; a mother driven to provide for her children; a mature-age human who needs to act to heal the wounds that ache within her. Okonedo’s performance has already been ignored by the Oscar membership – the film was made in 2008 – but she can take much of the credit for the slew of humanitarian film festival awards that the movie has accrued (Dallas 2009, Giffoni 2009, Los Angeles Pan African 2009, Moondance 2009, Palm Beach 2009, Santa Barbara 2009).

The influence of Anthony Fabian’s background in the filmed theatricality of classical opera (Bach & Variations, 1994; Township Opera, 2002; Harmony in Hanoi, 2003; While the Music Lasts, 2005) is nowhere to be seen in Skin. His film is one that teeters on the brink of dour self-importance perhaps once too often, only to be salvaged by the essential humanity of Okonedo, Neill and Ramangwane. Almost in spite of the director’s inexperience, Skin emerges as exactly the kind of moving, human experience it deserves to be.