Thursday 15 October 2020

Cries and whispers: "Body of Water"

The latest project to ping out of Film London's ever-effective Microwave scheme for first-time filmmakers, Lucy Brydon's Body of Water, starts a little tentatively, but soon gathers real dramatic force: you can tell it's been thought through, developed in a way so many low-budget indies aren't. It begins with an uncomfortable homecoming. Stephanie (Sian Brooke), a photographer in her late thirties, returns to Canvey Island after her latest round of treatment for an eating disorder, only to find her support network looking patchy, to say the least: mum Susan (Amanda Burton) is consumed with preparations for her forthcoming remarriage, while teenage daughter Pearl (Fabienne Piolini-Castle) has just discovered the twin distractions of boys and weed. Both seem to hold some grudge against Stephanie for past disruptions. That opens up a whole lot of space around the central character, and what instantly catches the eye here is Brydon's pointed framing: with the assistance of cinematographer Darran Bragg, she nudges an already worryingly thin-looking performer towards the centre or edge of the screen, and sees how small and lonely it's possible to make one woman appear. Is this what anorexia feels like, being marginalised, left to wither away unnoticed? Even the Canvey setting attains an extra resonance in this context: we too are off to the side of things, at the end of the line, or of somebody's tether.

That initial tentative quality is actually the sensitivity you'd want from a film on this issue, as well as a reflection of the hesitancy with which Stephanie reenters the world of three square meals. (Brydon gives us several of the most agonising mealtimes ever put on film: that old bugbear of watching actors push their food around a plate with their forks so as not to trouble continuity or block their pieholes is here weaponised. Watch Stephanie labouring over a plate of sliced apple or going horribly to town on the remains of the wedding buffet - the twin extremes of the bulimic - and weep.) We might latch onto a thin sliver of hope as Stephanie attempts to repair her broken bond with Pearl, a combative swimmer who's started skipping meals herself, yet Brydon knows this is hard, emotionally complicated work, with as many setbacks as breakthroughs. When daughter angrily shoves mother against a brick wall mid-row, you can almost hear the bones being jarred. To its credit, the film becomes properly jagged: the gentle group hug that might resolve its conflicts seems a very long way off. All three of the women at its centre are crying out for attention and love in different ways, but find it painfully hard to give; the nurse appointed to look out for Stephanie's best interests (Nick Blood) is horribly compromised when he leaves his patient behind in a toilet to cop off with the (underage) Pearl. That leaves us with an uneasy watch, and no easy way out: I wasn't entirely sure about the ending Brydon settles on, although it can't help but prompt healthy post-film debate. Unarguably well-performed, however, particularly by the hitherto unknown Brooke, who has a back like a scream, and a thousand-yard glare that will stay with you for days.

Body of Water opens in selected cinemas, and will be available to stream, from tomorrow.

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