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.