Review: Body of Water (Dir. Lucy Brydon, 2020)

Nothing quite brings a family together – or tears it apart – like a wedding. At least that’s the theory. For war photographer Stephanie (Sian Brooke), she must contend with organising a Hen party, writing a speech, attend dress fittings (complete with unhelpful comments like, “it’d probably look better on some curves”) and repair relationships with her teenage daughter Pearl (Fabienne Piolini-Castle) and mother/bride-to-be Susan (Amanda Burton). All of this while navigating getting well following several months of supervised showers, weigh-ins, eating plans and therapy in an inpatient treatment facility for an eating disorder.

Initially, interactions are overly polite and awkward – strained, fractious and as diminishing as Stephanie’s frame swamped in layers of clothing and over-sized hoodies. The tension palpable. Even more so at mealtimes when Stephanie is sat alone at the dinner table, a glass of water to hand to wash down the food or to fill her up so she doesn’t have to eat more. Long takes are utilised in these moments which only add to her struggle and isolation as she attempts bite after bite, hoping that an apple won’t defeat her. It is excruciating to watch.

The performances are all excellent, collectively working well together while creating three fully realised characters and a convincing family unit. Burton’s Susan is throwing herself into wedding preparation while trying to keep Stephanie, her illness and Pearl somewhat at arm’s length. She’s the authoritarian guardian of both her daughter and granddaughter having had to raise Pearl for much of her mother’s treatment – seven months at a time and on four separate occasions. Her impending nuptials are desperately important, not just for the significant commitment it celebrates but she’s hoping (or deluding herself) that it will be free from anorexia’s grasp.

Piolini-Castle perfectly encapsulates the teenage angst of Pearl – bouncing from apathy to anger, and aggression, flirting with rebellion as she sneaks out of the house using inappropriate sexual entanglements as a means of distraction. At its core, however, this is Brooke’s film. Her performance is powerful, subtle and complex. There’s a delicacy, a fragility which is at odds with the character’s tenacity and strength. She’s trying to be a good mother (and daughter) but illness has a grip on her, it won’t let her go and she’s tired of fighting it.

There are few men onscreen. There’s no mention of either Stephanie or Pearl’s father(s) – leaving us to draw our own conclusions and Stephanie’s Caseworker Shaun (Nick Blood) doesn’t paint a particularly positive picture of his sex or the social care system.

The term ‘eating disorder’ never quite communicates the severity of the mental illness that affects both men and women (3/4 tend to be the latter) and has the highest fatality rate, yet is the hardest to treat. It is not a subject matter new on film but writer-director Lucy Brydon’s BBC-backed drama seeks to reframe the narrative that is most prevalent (though still bearing a white protagonist). There is no pre-pubescent gymnast or ballet dancer whose goal-orientated weight loss is taken too far (and overcome through puberty) but an adult woman who is battling it and there is no trigger. We don’t know how, why or when it started for Stephanie, if it is psychological, sociological or genetic (or all of the above). It just is. Which makes the film all the more powerful for it.

Brydon makes the most of the 95 minute runtime, utilising space (or in Stephanie’s case limiting it) intuitively and Darran Bragg’s cinematography is captured through an almost continuously moving camera – sometimes slow and languid, other times a not-so-steady-cam, continuing the water theme – the colour palette adding to the muted tone with a mise-en-scène awash with blues, greens and greys. It’s a perfect metaphor for a lot of things but it encapsulates Stephanie’s struggle so perfectly, and in those moments when old habits creep in and threaten her recovery the sound design distorts so the audience is briefly under water with her, coupled with Rory Attwell’s atonal score.

Body of Water is an impressive debut, however, it is by no means an easy watch. Yet, it manages to convey some of the difficulties and psychological problems anorexia can present and how it can engulf sufferers and their families alike, all without judgement, stigma or fetishising the female body. This is a sensitively made and beautifully performed British drama that does well to depict the horrors of an illness, and questions whether true recovery actually exists for those who continue to shrink themselves to fit the world.


Review: The Party’s Just Beginning (Dir. Karen Gillan, 2018)

As of 2017, Scotland held the highest suicide rate in the UK. Between 2011 and 2017 73% of those suicides were three times more likely to be men living in the most socio-economically deprived areas. Set in Inverness, The Party’s Just Beginning uses these statistics to shine a light on the issue and uses suicide to drive the overarching narrative. Not the most uplifting subject, however, first time director Karen Gillan puts her own surreal and oddly positive, comedic spin on dark proceedings.

Twenty-four year old Liusaidh (Gillan) works on the cheese counter of a local supermarket. Her evenings tend to involve getting drunk, getting ‘lucky’, then shovelling in chips along the long walk home a little worse for wear… and rinse repeat. Her nightly routine (when not out drinking) consists of opening the net curtains and observing the neighbouring families opposite and see how they are with each other, while her own parents (Paul Higgins and Siobhan Redmond) leave their only daughter to her own devices. Liusaidh’s best friend Alistair (Matthew Beard), unable to cope with his own problems – including the loss of his drug-addled father – jumped off a bridge and onto an incoming train the year before.

Liusaidh is stuck in her crummy little town destined to relive a groundhog day of grief while remembering the fun, friendship (and pain) they experienced when he was alive. These memories are intercut throughout the film in a series of flashbacks. Liusaidh is reckless and overwhelmed with sorrow, loneliness and thoughts of suicide; Alistair’s, her own and other people’s, and she copes in the only way she knows how – silence and self-medication.

She’s fighting to heal and when she meets beautiful and mysterious stranger Dale (Lee Pace, complete with yet another convincing British accent), things briefly improve and perhaps, perhaps a little happiness starts to creep in. There’s also the old man who calls the house. One of a group of many who hit a wrong digit and rather than contacting the Helpline they’re after get through to a cracked (not yet completely broken) household. Liusaidh doesn’t hang up on this nuisance caller – who is grappling with his own regrets and losses – his disembodied voice becomes the ‘in’ to her own recovery.

Writer-director Gillan is best known for her work in front of the camera, first as Amy Pond in Doctor Who and now as blue-hued baldy Nebula in Guardians of the Galaxy, Infinity War and Endgame but has spent the last four years writing and directing short films. (One of which, Conventional, was screened at this year’s FrightFest). The Party’s Just Beginning is her first feature but you would never know it given its assured nature with visuals – shout-out to make-up artist Jacqui Mallett whose subtle brush strokes make Liusaidh’s stubble rash and growing black rings and eye bags wholly realistic – rapid kinetic cuts and the soundtrack. Composed by Kreng, it combines classical (including snippets of Grieg’s “Peer Gynt”), electro and original music. The leitmotif of The Communards’ ‘Don’t Leave Me This Way’ is a nice (Scottish) touch to an already dark and, at times, absurd film.

While Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag cornered the market for middle-class woman in their thirties, Gillan’s Liusaidh has a lot to say for the millennial working-class woman in her twenties (even her name is Gaelic for ‘female’). Both created women struggling with their own identity and grief. Gillan uses the backdrop of the grey vista of Scotland to great effect. While the issues depicted are universal, the film is quintessentially Scottish and the scenes set in the Clootie Well (a Celtic place of pilgrimage where rags or pieces of clothing are tied to elicit healing) are beautiful with visuals and colours reminiscent of Xavier Dolan’s Laurence Anyways and more recently Rachel Tunnard’s 2016 gem Adult Life Skills.

Not content with the themes of suicide, depression and mental health, Gillan also adds rape and notions of consent, alcoholism, drug abuse, religion, homosexuality and transgender identity. She should be commended for tackling such issues and not least in her first feature film, however, it becomes one issue too many and this shoehorning leaves a feeling of contrivance which unravels the narrative somewhat and stretches the gamut of believability. Nit-picking aside, Gillan has brought together a talented crew and supporting cast including Pace and Beard. There are also lovely parts for instantly recognisable Higgins (Line of Duty, Utopia) and Redmond (Unforgotten, Taggart) as well as cameos by Daniela Nardini (Waterloo Road, This Life) and Julie Graham (Shetland, The Bletchley Circle).

There are moments in The Party’s Just Beginning that will hit you in the gut with at least one aspect of the storyline that most will identify with. As a feature debut, it is formidable in parts, flawed in others and yet, well worth 91 minutes of your time.